note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi
Gloucester Stage Company is performing in repertory a literary twosome: DEAR LIAR and THE BELLE OF AMHERST. Both are worth your attendance.
George Bernard Shaw … Paul O’Brien
Mrs. Patrick Campbell … Sandra Shipley
Once upon a time there lived a brilliant Irishman named George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) who moved out of dreary Dublin and into Victoria’s London where he began as an unsuccessful novelist but made his mark as socialist, pamphleteer, lecturer, music and theatre critic, playwright and man of letters --- many, many, many letters, most of them preserved and published along with those of his correspondents (oh, and he received a Nobel Prize, too). Mr. Shaw was always falling in and out of love before and after his platonic but happy marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a game Irish heiress, though his thorny views on love made for rocky roads to romance (he wanted to change Society, and his women tended to ask, “When will I see you, again?”). Mr. Shaw’s most famous affairs were with two actresses: Ellen Terry (1847-1928), Sir Henry Irving’s leading lady, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940), for whom Mr. Shaw created Eliza Doolittle in PYGMALION. Ms. Terry was a loveable earth-mother and her relationship with Mr. Shaw was conducted entirely on paper, never meeting the man in person until late in the game by which time Mrs. Campbell had replaced her in his affections. Mrs. Campbell was a diva, a temptress and the terror of actor-managers --- she and Mr. Shaw met, often, thus their correspondence is spotty (at times, frustratingly so) whereas the Shaw-Terry letters are consistent and can be read straight through as literature (the latter are quite chaste, too, thus their being published during Shaw’s and Charlotte’s lifetimes). If the Shaw-Campbell letters can be viewed as a three-act play, Act One has “Mrs. Pat” leading Mr. Shaw in a merry chase; a brief Act Two is the PYGMALION days which offers few insights about their stormy collaboration (Richard Huggett’s book THE TRUTH ABOUT PYGMALION fills in the gaps, briskly and hilariously); a lengthy Act Three is Mr. Shaw’s rise, Mrs. Campbell’s decline, and their squabbling over her wanting to publish their letters for financial reasons --- Mr. Shaw refused permission to protect Charlotte's honor (ironically, after his wife’s death, Mr. Shaw discovered that she had poured out her own heart in letters to Lawrence of Arabia); aside from snippets in Mrs. Campbell’s autobiography, the Shaw-Campbell letters were not published in book form until after the lovers and Charlotte were dead. The Shaw-Terry letters, indeed, are the better reading and offer an invaluable portrait of late-Victorian theatre politics, but the Shaw-Campbell ones have their moments with Shaw alternating between Jove and Fool and his lady, between an impossible woman and the Eternal Feminine; Act Three’s letters are the most consistent: the lovers are separated by distance, age and contrasting fates with Shaw, wanting to slip gracefully into his senior years, being stalked by a penniless virago best described as “a sinking ship that fired upon those who tried to rescue it”.
DEAR LIAR is Jerome Kilty’s adaptation of the Shaw-Campbell correspondence in which the late Katherine Cornell ended her own stage career in 1960 (the play’s title comes from Shaw’s “Dearest Liar” letter of 4 January 1913) and Mr. Kilty has done a rather smooth job of it, adding narrative when necessary and filling in the PYGMALION gaps with the pair rehearsing scenes from the play, the trade-off being a Brechtian stance (i.e. “we’re not really Shaw and Mrs. Pat, mind you; we’re just acting out their letters”) and the homogenization of this legendary pair into the familiar High Comedy theatre-couple, endlessly bickering whilst remaining teddibly clevuh --- one leaves them with brain refreshed and heart unmoved.
The Gloucester Stage production is equally smooth under David Zoffoli’s direction, and Jenna McFarland Lord’s arrangement of overlapping rugs on a raked stage subtly dissolves the unities of time and space and frees up the action. Though Brechtian in nature, the performances of Paul O’Brien and Sandra Shipley are Shavian in temperament; that is, they are nimble mouthpieces to all those words, words, words. They are fortunate in not having to impersonate their characters for Mr. O’Brien blusters too much, clouding Mr. Shaw’s radiance, and he goes to great lengths to place a heart where the man never had one --- and without an Irish accent, too. Ms. Shipley’s Mrs. Pat may lack the seeds of self-destructiveness (which could have been suggested despite Mr. Kilty’s homogenizing) but she is peerless at being leonine, tigerish, catty, kittenish and all other descriptions of the feline race and her superb instrument recalls one of Mr. Shaw’s own rules for actresses: “An actress should practice her alphabet … and come before the public able to drive a nail up to the head with one touch of a consonant.” Ms. Shipley could build cities, that way.
Emily Dickinson … Lindsay Crouse
THE BELLE OF AMHEST, William Luce’s one-woman show about New England poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is now old enough to be considered a classic but, as soloist material, introverts are at odds with such an extrovert genre and BELLE retains the same stumbling block now as it did, thirty years ago: I find it hard to believe that Ms. Dickinson, living as a recluse and anonymously publishing only seven poems in her lifetime, would ever invite the world (i.e. the audience) in for tea, offer confessions of a well-guarded heart and host as well as any socialite and be entertaining, to boot. (Susan Glaspell’s Pulitzer play ALISON’S HOUSE, inspired by Ms. Dickinson’s life, has the offstage poet dead but her presence felt, throughout.) That said, THE BELLE OF AMHERST remains a marvelous vehicle and its audiences may be inspired to (re)acquaint themselves with Ms. Dickinson's pure, flowing verse.
I’ve not seen the filmed Julie Harris performance for decades but remember her dashing about in high spirits (“what fun to be a spinster, and in father’s house, too!”); Gloucester's Lindsay Crouse plays the poet as a round-eyed, solemn child --- at first, one misses Mr. Harris’ sparkle, but Ms. Crouse is truer to Ms. Dickinson’s spirit. Firstly, she is believable in both her poet’s solitude and in her secret artistry. Secondly, she seems to be correctly laced in and weighed down (thank you, Jane Greenwood) so that her own dashing about is ever preceded by a gathering and lifting of her skirts; here is period movement. Thirdly, Ms. Crouse’s performance is distinctly an America of another day --- though she wears bridal-white, she is plain but sturdy as calico. To watch Ms. Crouse move amongst the furniture with small-town dignity and grace --- and director Eric C. Engel does not hinder her with mood-soundtracks or hints of psychosis --- is to get an echo of what American women (and, thus, American culture) were once all about: simple, direct and open, and which remained so up until the 1950s. Today’s women are encouraged by the media to be up front, physical and “hot”; how more involving to watch Ms. Crouse’s poet remain a closed seed to the world, then open up to her soul-mate and close again, unconsummated (Billy Collins’ erotic poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” has Mr. Collins’ slowly freeing her dormant flesh from her dress and undergarments). And then there is Ms. Crouse’s voice which may strike the ear as flat but reaches Shakespearean heights in Act Two without going over the top --- her sparrow sings at the top of its lungs but remains a sparrow. This is one of the year’s most moving performances.