George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright, critic, political activist, and someone who loved to engage in controversial debate. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death at age 94 and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912), and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1938 he provided the screenplay for a filmed version of Pygmalion for which he received an Academy Award.
But it is his outspoken views on marriage that take center stage in John Morogiello’s play ENGAGING SHAW, now being staged at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, directed by Melanie MacQueen, who states in her program notes, “Across the centuries great artists, thinkers and revolutionaries have tried upending many social apple carts, and have sometimes succeeded. But, in one thing – the workings of the human heart – they have all come up against the need of one human being for another. In this regard, what rule book should we follow? Is there one? Or maybe the rules should be ‘a series of yearly contracts’? How should we treat each other as men and women?” Very few of these issues raised by these 19th century people have gone away.
ENGAGING SHAW begins in England in 1897 in a comfortable cottage in Stratford, England, where Shaw hopes to complete his new play. As he engages in conversation with his friends, the happily married cottage owners, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, we learn Shaw is a notorious flirt and heartbreaker who enjoys romancing women, attracting them to him “like a moth to the flame.” But it is soon apparent he is not particularly interested in sex, a fact reflected in his real life where he remained a virgin until his 29th birthday. It’s the thrill of the hunt that is the main attraction for Shaw, thoroughly enjoying the effect he has on women as he pursues them, not in the keeping of them. In present-day parlance, he’d be considered a sexist cad.
The Webbs’ benefactor for their school is Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irish heiress who just happens to be single. Beatrice sees an opportunity to deflect Shaw’s interest in her (and hers in him) by inviting Charlotte to visit, knowing when she meets Shaw, the financially challenged but famous Irish playwright and political activist, that sparks will fly.
You see, Charlotte is not quite like any other woman that Shaw has met before. She is a financially secure, middle-aged, virginal woman he must consider to be his intellectual peer. They thrive in each other’s company, first intellectually, but can he resist her when she wants to take their relationship to the next level? “No man can resist a woman once she has set her sights on him, unless thwarted by another woman,” declares Charlotte. When Beatrice overhears this, she and her husband make plans to leave for two years in America. Will this allow Charlotte to get her man?
What makes this play so much fun to experience is the skill of its actors, dressed in historic perfection by Michèle Young, as they circle each other amid intellectual debates around Jeff G Rack’s realistic set. Tea is poured and ceremoniously handed off in dainty cups, all the while knowing it might be more appropriate to toss it in the face of such a cad as Shaw, portrayed by Grinnell Morris to the hilt as someone so brilliant and well-mannered it would be difficult not to enjoy engaging with him on topics of the day. Charlotte, portrayed beautifully by Jennifer Lynn Davis as a curvy and personally insecure spinster hoping to finally meet and marry a man she considers her equal intellectually, suffers great bouts of heartbreak before learning to stand on her own two feet and live the type of life travelling the world Shaw would certainly enjoy if he could afford to do so. It was a real treat for me, as I am sure it was for most women in the audience, to watch Shaw fall apart on so many levels during Charlotte’s absence.
And all the while, Charlotte stays in contact with her friends Beatrice and Sidney (Susan Priver and Warren Davis), via letters shared with the audience as they are read aloud. The most emotionally engaging scene in the show takes place when MacQueen places all four characters in various locations on the set as they read letters exchanged between them, with Shaw sinking deeper and deeper into depression as he finally realizes his life only has meaning when Charlotte is there to share it with him. It’s the ultimate fantasy of every woman trying to “get her man” and leads to a most fulfilling ending for a woman totally worthy of having it all.