Wednesday, August 06, 2014

"The Philanderer" trumpets Shaw's views on women' rights

To truly understand, and to go beyond just enjoying a George Bernard Shaw play, it is required that you are aware that the Scotch/British writer was known as “A Theatrical Terrorist.”  He wrote realistic plays, much in the style of Henrik Ibsen, which attempted to change the actions and thoughts of the public. 

Shaw’s naturalistic style put his characters in real situations that could be used as the basis for illustrating the ills, or Shaw’s perceptions of the ills of society.  He took on the medical profession, the upper classes, conservative governmental attitudes, the educational establishment, and the attitudes of lesser beings.  He was a rebel writer with a cause, in fact, many causes.

His “The Philanderer” takes on the cause of the subjection of women, awareness of social problems and criticism capitalist behavior.  The Shaw has found the play such an audience pleaser that it has staged it four other times.

Written in 1893 as one of three plays Shaw published as “Plays Unpleasant,”  it was so controversial that the British Censorship Board refused to allow it to be performed until 1902.  The script was ahead of its time.  Shaw was looking at the newness and changes taking place in society.  The staid British, reluctant as they are to change, were resisting the alterations.  Changes that eventually led to the rise of socialistic views, the advancement of universal health care, respect for woman and minorities, and the advancement of scientific research. (In the present day U.S., the restrictive attitudes would be parallel to that of the Tea Party.)

Shaw, in his manuscript, writes of the start of the play, “A lady and gentleman are making love to one another in the drawing room of a flat in Ashley Gardens in the Victoria district of London.”  As it turns out, the lady is Grace Tranfield, a young widow.  The man is Leonard Charteris, noted as being a philanderer and carrying on with many women at the same time.  When caught, he falls back on the idea that he is not at fault as “half the women I speak to fall in love with me.”

Shaw once wrote, “A philanderer is a man who is strongly attracted by women.  He flirts with them, falls half in love with then, makes them fall in love with him, but will not commit himself to a permanent relation with them, and often retreats at the last moment if his suit is successful—loves them but loves himself more—is too cautious, too fastidious, ever to give himself away.”

Throw in multi-dalliances, a supposed illness, a drama critic, mixed messages on marriage, a woman who shocks others by dressing as a man, a doctor named Paramore, a disproven cure for an illness, and a controversy over whether a philanderer can be a fit husband, and you have the makings of a delightful and meaningful play.

Interestingly, many early critics disliked the play. This was only Shaw’s second play.  Still open to considering criticism, he subsequently rewrote the ending, added a third act, and the play took on a different meaning.  (Apparently, there is some value to theatre critics.)  The present Shaw production uses the “new” third act.  The result is a less sentimental and more purposeful play.

The play foreshadows Shaw’s beliefs about the role of “powerhouse women” as highlighted in many of his future plays. 

The acting is universally strong.  Gord Rand reeks philanderer in the title role…suave, beguiling, and devious.  Moya O’Connell as Julia Craven and Marla McLean as Grace Tranfield are on target as “womanly women.” Jeff Meadows is properly flustered and cowed as Dr. Paramore.  Michael Ball (Cuthbertson)  and Ric Reid (Craven) delight as the “older” characters. Harveen Sandhu is character perfect as Sylvia, a “manly woman.”

The sets, the costumes, the musical interludes all help enhance the production.

Capsule judgement: The Shaw production of “The Philanderer,” under the creative direction of Lisa Peterson, is filled with farcical interludes, melodramatic acting, and slapstick, while bannering Shaw’s many political and social causes.  All in all, it is both an enlightening picture of the past, carries implications for the present, and totally entertains.