Shaw Thing

Ironically, it was she and not he who had had another string to her bow the whole time: The most famous interruption to Pygmalion rehearsals was the night on which Mrs. Campbell disappeared, to emerge from hiding two days later as Mrs. George Cornwallis West. Shaw forgave, but never quite got over the shock. He also never again cast Mrs. Pat in one of his plays, though he drew any number of characters from her. (The list, he told her in one of his letters, includes Hesione in Heartbreak House, the Serpent in Back to Methuselah, and Orinthia in The Apple Cart.) By the time he had softened sufficiently to arrange a small role for her in the film of Major Barbara, age and bad luck had hardened her into a semi-recluse, long away from the stage, who refused to come back to England— she was then living, impoverished, in the south of France— because it would mean six months' quarantine for her beloved Pekin- ese. Cornwallis West had deserted her for a younger woman; her beloved son by Campbell had been killed in World War I; her stringent demands and astringent wit had alienated most of Hollywood and New York as well as London. John Gielgud, one of many who offered her help in the 1930s, compared her to "a sinking battleship firing on its rescuers," and said, recounting some of her legendary sharp remarks, "She is committing the wittiest form of hara-kiri." (One of her Hollywood lines: "Ah, Mr. Thalberg. I've just met your charming wife with the appallingly tiny brown eyes.") Her correspondence with Shaw, for all its intermittence and its elaborate fencing, lasted longer than most of the deeper passions in her life, or in his. His charity to her was to send her letters back, so that she might, if in need, sell the correspondence as a whole.

Donal Donnelly and Marian Seldes in Dear Liar: letter imperfect
photo: Carol Roseegg
Donal Donnelly and Marian Seldes in Dear Liar: letter imperfect


Dear Liar
By Jerome Kilty
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street

I have devoted so much space to the background of Dear Liar because it is hardly a play at all, and Charlotte Moore's staging, which plants Donal Donnelly's Shaw at a desk upstage center for virtually the entire evening, does next to nothing to make it a divertissement. Donnelly reads lucidly and Shavianly, at a steady pace, but the evening would feel sluggish as well as static if it weren't for Marian Seldes's Mrs. Pat. She moves grandly, speaks in every tone from thunder to tremulous pianissimo, and in repose evokes the Edwardian era as perfectly as the Sargent canvases off which she seems to have just stepped. Seldes does not attempt the piano, but I would trust her for that, and as the lucky recipient of letters from her, I can say that her epistolary style is as flavorsome as Mrs. Pat's. Unlike Shaw, however, I know where a drama critic's love letters belong, which is why I've put this one in the review.

« Previous Page