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Bernard Shaw is having quite a week, for he had last night three different productions on the local boards. As the fourth event of the Harvard-MIT Summer Series, Kresge Auditorium was the scene of the formal world premiere of Dear Liar, "a play for two vioces" by Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
The text of the two-act play was adapted by Jerome Kilty '49 from the four decades of correspondence between Shaw and Mrs. Campbell, the celebrated British actress (nee Beatrice Stella Tanner). Many of their letters were published five years ago, but much of the material for this play has never been published, having been presented to Kilty by a friend who smuggled it out of France in 1940 at the behest of Mrs. Campbell, who was then on her deathbed and wanted the letters preserved.
Kilty has done a brilliantly skillful job of fashioning this play. Actually the letters are so written that they lend themselves very well to conversational give-and-take. And Kilty has devised fitting links to fill the gaps. Act I deals with letters from 1899 to the first World War, and Act II with those from 1914 to 1939.
The resulting play allows us to see beneath the surface of Shaw and the reigning queen of the Victorian and Edwardian stage for whom he wrote many of his great roles. And in it other famous personages, both in and outside the theatre, flow in and out.
The work begins when Mrs. Campbell was at the peak of her career and Shaw a merely notorious pamphleteer. Act I contains the story of Shaw's plea to Mrs. Campbell to take the role of Liza in Pygmalion, her frightful automobile accident (which she thought had ended her career), and the final triumph of the opening night. In this act, Kilty turned his play into a play about a play and slipped in and out of actual rehearsals of scenes from Pygmalion.
Similarly in Act II, Kilty slips in and out of the glorious interlude in The Apple Cart, in which Shaw intended King Magnus to be the author and Orinthia to be Mrs. Campbell--two portraits in disguise. This act too presents the long quarrel between the two over what should be done with their letters and over how much of them ought to be published. The act moves on to a most affecting conclusion, as we see the pathetic decline and hard days of Mrs. Campbell, who finally has to overcome her pride and write to Shaw for assistance.
Mentally, these two were quite a match for one another--both keen, strong-willed and witty. Both managed to retain a superb sense of humor right to the very end.
Shaw's proverbial wit is abundantly manifest. At one point the self-styled "greatest living master of letters" exclaims, "All I ask is to have my own way in everything." And after an ovation at a play, he said, "My impulse was to rise and bless them. I often feel like the Pope."
Mrs. Campbell could match him: "Laugh and the world laughs with you; snore and you sleep alone." Or, "When you were a little boy, someone should have said 'Hush' just once."
Kilty himself played Shaw, and Cavada Humphrey (who recently became Mrs. Kilty) the actress--both forceful and faultless performances, carefully staged with appropriate lighting and background music. The whole show pointed up the gravity of the theatre's loss between 1940 and 1950 of these letter-writers, two great hearts and grand souls.
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