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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: Season after season

Another Angle. Season after season was first published 23 July 2006 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Lifelong learning and fullness of appreciation

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

The writer of Ecclesiastes begins chapter three with the familiar words, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." (KJV). I thought of those words for this week's column, because for longer than a century the plays of George Bernard Shaw have been coming to life on stage. And since the time that Shaw began writing his plays, there has hardly been a season of any year without someone somewhere putting on a Shaw play.

Shaw was a giant of English literature

Shaw, the accomplished critic, essayist and playwright, was born more than 150 years ago on Wednesday, July 26, 1856. This sesquicentennial week [2006] is a good occasion to remember and appreciate one of the true giants of English literature. Born in Ireland to poor parents, he moved to London as a young man to make his mark as a novelist. He wrote five novels, but not one was published in those early years. He found work as a newspaper music critic, then as a drama critic. By the time he was in his early 40's he had married the Irish heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, and had begun his career as a successful playwright.

His 1892 play, Widowers' Houses, had not been a financial success. It was an indictment of slumlords, and the angry reaction shown to the play by so many monied people convinced Shaw that his play had hit its mark effectively. He decided that he had found his course in life. His first major success was Candida (1898; more about it later), and Shaw commenced a series of productions that enthralled some people, angered others, made a lot of money and gained him great fame around the world.

Shaw tackled great ideas and perplexities of his time

During a era when many plays dealt with frothy comedy, sentimentality, melodrama and complicated plots riddled with implausible coincidence, Shaw tackled the great ideas and perplexities of his time. He wrote dozens of plays. Some of his other significant works were: The Devil's Disciple (1897); Mrs. Warren's Profession (1898); Arms and the Man (1898); Caesar and Cleopatra (1901); Man and Superman (1903); Major Barbara (1905); Androcles and the Lion (1913); Pygmalion (1913); Heartbreak House (1919); Back to Methuselah (a five-play cycle, 1921); and Saint Joan (1923).

Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925

He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. When his play Pygmalion was adapted as a movie in 1938, he won an Academy Award for its screenplay. He remains the only person who is both a Nobel laureate for literature and Oscar winner. He exchanged voluminous correspondence with many people, and some of those letters have been adapted into plays.

By the time of his death in 1950 he was one of the most famous and quoted people on the face of the earth. He gained a new round of fame and recognition even after death. The 1956 musical, My Fair Lady, was based on Pygmalion, and it was fabulously successful on stage and in film.

Among his pithy quotes: "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion." "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." "A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic." My favorite Shavian quote is about the very act of quoting, "I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."

Kentucky Repertory Theatre has own Shaw connection

Kentucky Repertory Theatre at Horse Cave has its own connection to Shaw. The very first play of the very first season in 1977 was Candida, with Pamela White in the title role. Candida is a spirited and insightful woman who is loved and needed by her clergyman husband James Morell, and simultaneously loved and wanted by the young and poetic Marchbanks. A few years later the theatre did Shaw's The Village Wooing. Then, in its 25th season in 2001, the theatre once again did Candida, again with Pamela White.

A quick trip to the Internet Broadway Database ( ) shows that Candida, this one play by Shaw, has been produced on Broadway 14 times over the years. The earliest production was in 1903, while the most recent was in 1993. (The total number of Broadway productions of plays by Shaw, adapted from Shaw or based on Shavian correspondence is nearly 150.)

Every generation produces new CandidasThere have been new Candidas walking across the Broadway stage in every generation. In 1924 that role was played by Katharine Cornell, one of the queens of the stage in an earlier era. Less than a year later another production featured Peggy Wood in the role. Wood became known to following generations when she played the mother in the television series, I Remember Mama and the Mother Abbess in the film The Sound of Music, where she got to sing "Climb Every Mountain."

Katharine Cornell must have adored the role. She served as producer and star in 1937, 1942 and 1946 versions. In each of those three productions Mildred Natwick played the supporting role of Miss Garnett. In 1942 Raymond Massey played Morell, while Burgess Meredith was Marchbanks. In 1946 the supporting cast included Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and the role of Marchbanks was filled by Marlon Brando. Can you imagine being in that audience?

The story of the great women who have embodied Candida on Broadway does not end there. In 1952 it was Olivia de Havilland, in 1970 it was Celeste Holm, in 1981 it was Joanne Woodward (while Jane Curtin played Miss Garnett), and in 1993 the role was played by Mary Steenburgen. I am old enough to be awed by all of these names.

Shaw attracted some of best and brightest of successive generations

Clearly, George Bernard Shaw has attracted some of the best and brightest of each successive generation. A quick perusal of listings of some other Shaw productions of Broadway history confirms this fact. In every era George Bernard Shaw has found new resonance.

I don't think the writer of Ecclesiastes was referring to each new theatre season when writing, "To every thing there is a season..." But Shaw has come close to finding an appropriate time and purpose in every season (theatre or not) since he first arrived on the scene. This week marks a birthday worthy of note, the birthday of a playwright who has earned continued appreciation in our own time.


This story was posted on 2011-07-24 07:16:10
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