Unnatural bedfellows? Shaw returns to the Abbey
George Bernard Shaw did not always fit in with post-independence Ireland and the National Theatre but ‘Major Barbara’ continues a sort of rapprochement
‘Don’t fancy that I am disposed to defend my country,” says Isabella Woodward, a key character in George Bernard Shaw’s first novel, Immaturity. “I hate Ireland,” she rants during a family argument about religion and politics. “It is the slowest, furthest behind its time, dowdiest and most detestedly snobbish place on the surface of the earth.”
Of course, Immaturity is fiction not autobiography, but the complexity of Isabella Woodward’s relationship with the country of her birth reflects the ambiguity of Shaw’s own feelings towards Ireland, which he left when he was 17. Although he maintained connections with Dublin, he rarely visited and never returned to live in the country of his birth.
Throughout his prolific output of critical and fictional works, he occasionally commented on the heady Irish politics of home rule, but he rarely set any of his work in Ireland. He was supportive of, but maintained a distance from, the Irish Literary Revival, and had a somewhat fraught relationship with the Abbey Theatre, where his plays had a potted production history, marked by rejected commissions, provocative postponements and the neglect of some his most famous plays. His classic socialist play Major Barbara, for example, will be performed on the Abbey stage for the first time this week.
What is it about Shaw’s work that makes his contribution to the canon of Irish theatre so complex and controversial?
In 1904, George Bernard Shaw was invited by WB Yeats to write a patriotic contribution for the newly opened Abbey Theatre. Shaw had been living in London for more than 20 years, but the writers had met a decade earlier when one of Shaw’s first plays, Arms and the Man, was paired with Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire at London’s Avenue Theatre in a production sponsored by Annie Horniman, who would later become the Abbey Theatre’s chief patron.
A deliberate break with Ireland
The invitation was surprising. At this stage, Shaw rarely commented explicitly on the Irish cultural or political cause in his prolific output of criticism, novels and plays. At the time of his departure from Ireland in 1876, he had made a deliberate break with the country of his birth, reflecting as an older man that “there was no sense that Ireland had in herself the seed of culture”.
Moreover, politically Shaw was an ardent internationalist rather than a nationalist. He was a committed Fabian driven by universal socialist ideals, and the Irish nationalist cause seemed parochial in comparison with the class struggle he witnessed on a daily basis in England.
But it wasn’t just politics that kept Shaw at a distance from the Irish Literary Revival. His political-realist aesthetic also diverged wildly from the early Abbey naturalist style, and it should have come as no shock to him that when he sent John Bull’s Other Island to Yeats, Yeats chose not to produce it. The play was partly set in England, featured leading English characters, and played with – rather than rejected – the idea of the stage Irish character that Yeats and his fellow theatre directors were so opposed to. Instead of a spiritual Celtic ideal, Shaw presented Ireland as a country ripe with self-interest and ready to exploit its own culture for commercial gain.
In his response to Shaw, Yeats claimed that it was beyond the resources of the Abbey to produce John Bull’s Other Island at the time – and this was certainly true.
However, in his correspondence with his co-directors Yeats also made it clear that the play did not suit the Abbey’s agenda, and that was certainly how Shaw understood its rejection. In his Preface for Politicians, which accompanied the published version of the play in 1906, he wrote that John Bull’s Other Island “was uncongenial to the whole spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement, which is bent on creating a new Ireland after its own ideal, whereas my play is an uncompromising presentment of the real old Ireland.”
The play premiered in London later that year and, ironically, it marked his breakthrough as a playwright, culminating in a royal command performance and establishing Shaw’s work as a popular staple of the emerging repertory tradition in England.
Shaw, a prolific critic himself, had a thick skin, and he bore no especial grudge against Yeats or the Abbey. Indeed in 1909, he gave the theatre another new play to perform, The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, although it wasn’t an entirely altruistic gesture. The comedy had been banned in England by Lord Chamberlain, and in protest against censorship in the theatre, Shaw offered it to the Abbey, which did not fall under Lord Chamberlain’s writ despite being under British jurisdiction.
The theatre was threatened with closure but Yeats was on Shaw’s side this time, and the Abbey stood its ground. It was a worthwhile risk: the production proved so successful that it became a vital part of the theatre’s repertoire. Indeed Shaw’s work soon became a staple at the theatre, as the Abbey began to produce the rest of Shaw’s back catalogue, including John Bull’s Other Island, in order to satisfy popular demand. Ironically, despite Yeats’s initial reservations, the play became one of the theatre’s most successful productions, and was performed 25 times in the decade after its premiere in 1916.
Popularity did not sit easy with Shaw, who in life and work continually sought out debate and dialectic. When the Abbey commissioned another play from him in 1915, he sent them O’Flaherty VC, about an Irish Fenian fighting for the British army in Flanders, a particularly controversial topic in an Ireland still agitating for independence.
On the advice of the military authorities in Dublin, the play was not performed at the Abbey until 1920, when the war was well over and Ireland was on her way to self-governance.
Indifference to republicanism
Politically, Shaw remained indifferent to the republican cause, but he still spoke up in support of the leaders of the 1916 Rising when the British government sentenced them to death, agitating in particular on behalf of Roger Casement.
But if Shaw projected an air of objectivity about Irish independence, the period following the country’s liberation was not especially kind to him. Although he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and his international reputation soared, his work slowly fell out of favour at the National Theatre. Post-independence Ireland was defined by a cultural conservatism that had no use for Shaw’s liberal moralising nor for his style, which sat easier with the British drawing-room comedy tradition. It seems astonishing, for example, that Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion, only had its first Abbey performance in 2011.
Annabelle Comyn, who directed Pygmalion as well as the current production of Major Barbara, suggests that it is the “apparent density of ideas” in the plays “rather than Irishness [or not Irishness]” that have seen the plays fall from favour.
In fact, as Comyn sees it, Shaw’s “Irishness is what makes his plays about England so penetrating. Only an outsider could write about Britain as objectively. But that also reflects back upon his relationship with Ireland,” and, far more than being about any one tradition, she says, “the plays are about more universal, human issues.”
Pygmalion and Major Barbara seem particularly timely to Comyn as a director because they “hold a mirror up quite harshly to society, and we are at a time now where we are looking to explore ourselves as a nation. He was outspoken about poverty, welfare, the labour market advocating for better conditions, and those are issues that are still relevant today.
“Maybe we have a taste for Shaw because of that.”
Major Barbara runs at
the Abbey Theatre
until September 21