Theater archives

Shaw Thing


When George Bernard Shaw first wrote
to Beatrice Stella Campbell, to announce that he had written a new play— Pygmalion— with a role for her as “an East End dona with three ostrich feathers in her hair,” they had already been taking guarded notice of each other for some two decades, which are skimmed over rather cursorily in the opening speech of Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty’s 1960 stage version of their correspondence. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, as she was billed, first caught Shaw’s eye, along with every other cultured Londoner’s, in 1893 when, young and stunningly beautiful, she made a sensation as the heroine of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Not yet the much-feared drama
critic of the Saturday
, Shaw managed
to invent an excuse for
reviewing the play as
music critic of the World: Like many Victorian leading ladies, Mrs. Campbell found occasion to show off her piano playing onstage; accordingly Shaw reviewed it. As she was
an excellent musician, and Mrs. Tanqueray, by
his standards, not a
very convincing play, he ridiculed the story
by imagining Paula Tanqueray, the quintessential woman-with-a-past, as killing herself not because her divagations from respectability have been found out, but because the gentlemen onstage keep interrupting her attempts at Chopin.

This established, at least in Shaw’s mind, the dynamic of what would become their relationship. As a person and a phenomenon, Mrs. Pat could do no wrong; as an actress— unguided, or guided by anyone but GBS— she would make every mistake in the book, starting with a fondness for fashionable kitsch. Over the four years of drama criticism that followed, Shaw trashed every play Mrs. Pat appeared in, except for Romeo and Juliet and Ibsen’s Little Eyolf— in both of which he knocked her for playing to suit the fashionable audience rather than the role. She scored higher when he had no respect for the play, attributing everything good about the evening to her presence, which, in François Coppée’s hyper-romantic costume drama For the Crown, cued him to exclaim, “On the highest level, one does not act, one IS!”

While Shaw’s view of Stella, as a vehicle for passion that badly needed steering, may have been valid on one level, it dangerously discounted both the lady’s own intelligence and the powerful truth behind her instincts. Part Italian by ancestry— which goes far to explain both her musicality and her fine-featured, un-English beauty— Mrs. Pat was not a woman to be taken up casually or treated offhandedly. In the interim between Shaw’s retirement from drama criticism and the birth of Pygmalion, she had barnstormed across England and America, sometimes acting as her own producer, playing more than one of the hokey pieces Shaw deplored— Robert Hichens’s wicked-woman melodrama, Bella Donna, was a popular favorite— but making her audiences swallow, in alternating rep with them, works like Hedda Gabler and Bjornbson’s Beyond Human Power. As assured with foreign languages as with music, she had played Mélisande to Sarah Bernhardt’s Pelléas. And although she could be wayward, or actively prankish, with colleagues— she was notorious for her onstage practical jokes— she was equally well known for having a sharp, self-aware, caustic wit, every bit as ferocious as Shaw’s. “I was never really good as Hedda Gabler,”
she told the critic James Agate, decades later. “I had the wrong temperament for it. I have had Swedish masseuses who would have made ten thousand times better Heddas.”

Pygmalion had a long gestation period in Shaw’s head, and an even longer one before it materialized onstage in London in 1914. (The world premiere had actually been given a year earlier in Berlin, in Siegfried Trebitsch’s German translation.) In addition to all the usual difficulties about finding the right theater, negotiating the contract (always a sticky task with Shaw), and selecting the right leading man (an even trickier task where Mrs. Pat was concerned), there was a half-year hiatus while the leading lady recovered from being severely bruised in a taxicab accident. The whole time, Shaw and Mrs. Pat communicated largely by letter. It can’t precisely be said that they fell in love by letter, though something quite like that must have happened; at any rate, the letters greased the slide. Since both were hardened flirts, who had virtually no intention of following up their flirtatious gestures, the matter would have been no more than an amusement, except that Mrs. Campbell, nine years younger than Shaw and in her sexual prime, was fairly recently widowed.

Shaw, however, had no intention of being any diva’s writer-toy. His mariage blanc was unconsummated but extremely happy. Biographers’ descriptions of his and Charlotte’s conjugal coldness, mostly gleaned from the couple’s extreme old age, are contradicted by witnesses like Shaw’s American producer, Lawrence Lang-ner, who reported that the Shaws were very physically affectionate with each other. Be all that as it may, Mrs. Pat was interested, and Shaw reciprocated her interest sufficiently for the subject to become a touchy one at the Shavian breakfast table. (At one point it briefly drove Charlotte to resume an old flirtation with the doctor-writer Axel Munthe.) The tension and intimacy of Pygmalion rehearsals drove author and actress even closer together, producing the pivotal scene— later reproduced by Shaw in The Apple Cart— in which, attempting to stop him from leaving her house, Mrs. Pat literally wrestled the playwright to the floor of her drawing room.

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.

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.