The Meek's Inheritance

Candida at the Loeb tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.

POETRY MAKES nothing happen," admits Auden in the middle of a tribute to Yeats. Similarly, for George Bernard Shaw, the poet or idealist changes nothing, not even himself. In Candida, the poet Marchbanks and the preacher/politician Morell--rivals for the protagonist's love--are each immured in a prison of words. Marchbanks, an intruder into Morell's apparently idyllic Victorian home, attacks the vacuity of the parson's Christian Socialist platitudes; but his own endless flights of romanticism are no better. Both forms of verbiage are equally foolish--and equally valid. Neither is, in Auden's words, "a way of happening," let alone an incitement to change.

What transformation occurs in the play is the work rather of Candida, Morell's wife, who nourishes, sustains and, when necessary, strips away her men's illusions without ever succumbing to them herself. Through the agency of this energetic woman, a remarkable but typically Shavian reversal takes place: the seemingly strong, happily married Morell comes to realize his childish dependency on his wife; at the same time Marchbanks, rejected by Candida as the less needy, internalizes her gift to Morell as his own vision, in the process exchanging childhood for artistic maturity. In Candida, the "best" man fails to win; instead, the meek--or at least the weak--inherits the woman, if not the resolutely non-socialist earth, while the poet continues to dream his dreams.

Candida is very fine early Shaw; its dialogue is eloquent without being talky, its characters are vivid and complex and its polemics never threaten to overpower the central psychological drama. The Loeb production--spotty as it is--still manages to retain much of the play's original dramatic force. But it succeeds partially only because, with Candida, it would be very hard to fail utterly.

The central problem with Lorenzo Mariani's direction is his mishandling of an obviously talented cast. Both Jonathan Epstein as Morell and Jonathan Emerson as Marchbanks deliver perfectly consistent, self-contained performances; unfortunately, the two characterizations are completely out of synch with each other. Epstein's Parson Morell partakes of the tragic stature of Pastor Manders in Ibsen's Ghosts, a part Epstein played last year. It is a moving, sympathetic portrayal, but its naturalism stands in uneasy contrast to Emerson's frenetic, histrionic, almost self-parodying Marchbanks. As the timid poet, Emerson shrinks, flinches and mugs his way to a good quantity of laughs. But the scene between the two antagonists, especially their initial confrontation, are jarring--not because of the clash of personalities, but because of the disparity in acting styles.

Sarah McCluskey as Candida is a simple case of miscasting. McCluskey evokes only about half the role; she is all matron, and no sexual charmer. Part of the trouble is that she is visually wrong for the part, far too stocky and imposing; more important, she never quite manages to summon up the vitality both men are continually extolling. She's at her best in the last scene, when the script calls for a quiet, calm delivery of her lines.


The end result of this miscasting and misdirection is to unbalance the play. On the one hand, Candida becomes a less than credible savior; on the other, Morell is elevated to almost tragic dimensions, while Marchbanks seems no more significant than his own self-characterization as "a little nervous disease." The hardest part of the production to stomach is Marchbanks' final epiphany; at the end, Epstein's Morell is convincingly desolated, but Emerson's poet appears no less a boy.

In contrast, the minor roles are handled with a much greater sense of what Shaw is about. Cynthia Cardon is just right as Prossy, Morell's secretary and admirer, snapping out her consonants, as Shaw once suggested she should, with a "ten pound gun hammer spring." Thomas Champion, as Burgess, Candida's father, has a laudable Cockney accent, and Mariani himself oozes idolatrous servility as the cleric Lexy. One of the most successful scenes in the production is the comic encounter between Prossy, Burgess and Marchbanks; in this run-in with characters who have the outlines of caricature, Marchbanks' own exaggerated mannerisms find their proper context.

It is Mariani's inability to establish a suitable context for the action as a whole which is precisely this production's main failing. The set is too dowdy to help much; and the contrast in acting styles is matched by sometimes inappropriate shifts in mood. The extremely dark lighting in the last scene is overly somber for the revelatory nature of the action, while many of Marchbanks' scenes descend too far into farce. The proper Shavian mix of irony and humor, tragedy and comedy remains elusive.

"Nothing that is worth saying is proper," Marchbanks tells Morell at one point. but Morell too has his share of Shavian aphorisms. "I like a man to be true to himself, even in wickedness," he lectures Burgess. If Morell the socialist and Marchbanks the poet are two different masks for Shaw himself, then the playwright was not only complex; in the terms of this production, he emerges as schizoid and asymmetrical.