Monday, July 27, 2009

In Praise of GBS

This past weekend we -- my wife and I and two of our sons -- travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake, to attend a performance at the Shaw Festival. We also attended a presentation our son gave to the International Shaw Society, which convenes there during the festival.

The play we saw was The Devil's Disciple. It was the play which liberated Shaw from his usual employment as a journalist; and it allowed him to pursue his bliss in the theatre. In truth, that statement is inaccurate. Shaw was a brilliant man of many parts; and his blisses were many. Suffice it to say that the theatre made his reputation; everything else was further testament to the man's genius.

The play is about the true nature of religion and morality; about how a man of the cloth can become a man of action; and about how a man of action can become a man of the cloth. And, as always, Shaw delights in turning everything on its head. The truly religious man is the man of the title. And, through him, Shaw punctures the hot air balloons of hypocrisy and pomposity.

Like his countryman, Jonathan Swift, Shaw had no patience for hypocrisy and pomposity. But, unlike Swift, he never let those things get the best of him. His wit was a scalpel. He used it with swiftness and precision. And, despite the human frailty which Shaw found everywhere, he still saw that heroism was within man's grasp. It was not about whether Eliza Doolittle was a "squashed cabbage leaf" or a member of the aristocracy. It was about human dignity and the ability to see things as they are. When you watch a Shaw play, you come away with the distinct impression that -- for perhaps the first time -- you have seen things as they truly are.

I can only assume that the members of the International Shaw Society share some of that sentiment. There are distinguished academics in the group -- men and women who have spent their time at various universities, researching and teaching Shaw. But there are others whose professional pursuits have been outside the academy. What brings them together is their love of the man and his work. Our son loved being among them; and he marvelled that they were not competitive. They appear to be untouched by the spirit of the age just passed. For them, self interest is not what makes the world go round -- a notion which Shaw, a socialist, found appalling. They truly seem to enjoy each other's company. And their enthusiasm is infectious.

When I taught high school, we had several Shaw plays in our book room. For the most part, they collected dust and remained untouched. Once in awhile, one of us would pull Pygmalion off the shelf. Last Friday night, The Devil's Disciple played to a nearly packed house; and the audience did not need to be cued by a laugh track. Perhaps that was because, through the laughter, we saw -- in a dark time -- that, occasionally, human beings can still do the right thing. It was Shaw, after all, who proclaimed -- in Back to Methuselah -- "You see things; and you say,'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'

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