You could argue, with The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gate and You Never Can Tell at the Abbey, that our two major theatres are playing host to a 120-year-old grudge match. Or, at least, the evidence of a curiously prickly friendship.
Between 1895 and 1897 two of Ireland’s most celebrated writers created fascinatingly similar plays. Both are comedies about love and society, shifting identities and missing parents. Both were embroidered with political details and allusions to modern life. But they were by writers who were otherwise slow to claim common ground, and who split opinion.
“Oscar and George Bernard
Cannot be reconciled
When I’m Wilde about Shaw
I’m not Shaw about Wilde.”
So goes the poem by Freddie Oliver, suggesting a brotherhood of chalk and cheese. Shaw remembered their first meeting as an awkward encounter that would define their relationship: "We put each other out frightfully, and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very last."
There were only a handful of meetings, and scholars have been determined to find them significant as brief encounters that sparked each artist’s creativity.
They certainly both knew how to wound. "Bernard Shaw hasn't an enemy in the world; and none of his friends like him," quipped Wilde. Shaw referred privately to Wilde as "the great white caterpillar". When they both wrote anonymous and often wickedly lacerating literary reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette, their prose was regularly misattributed to each other – perhaps the only time Wilde and Shaw were interchangeable.
Shaw did defend Wilde’s talents, though, as “our only thorough playwright” who “plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre”.
Wilde's critics jeered that it all came too easily. "As far as I can ascertain," Shaw mordantly replied, "I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will." With You Never Can Tell, though, it looks like he tried.
The Importance of Being Earnest was an unlikely inspiration – Shaw had largely dismissed Wilde's last play in a review, saying, for all its wit, it lacked humanity. "Unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening," he wrote.
Wilde considered it treachery. Shortly after Earnest's opening, Wilde's court trials began and his play of double-lives and coded "Bunburying" was withdrawn from the stage before Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour. Within a few weeks, Shaw had begun writing his play, partly a caustic response to Sarah Grand's feminist novel The Heavenly Twins, but full of signs that Shaw had gone Wilde.
To lose one father is unfortunate; to lose two? Is it coincidental that both writers, each fatherless when they went to London – Wilde by death, Shaw by desertion – should construct their comedies around the search for a patriarch? A father Shaw's social-climbing suitor Valentine says early, is "an indispensable part of your social equipment". In Earnest, Lady Bracknell witheringly asks the social imposter Jack Worthing, who wants to marry her daughter, "to produce one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over." Both plays show how precarious any sense of social purchase can be (Wilde's dandy Algy and Shaw's dentist Valentine each seem to survive on borrowed credit, while aiming to come into a women's fortunes).
But to watch these plays in production now is to see how well Wilde has aged and how arthritic Shaw feels. The only thing that dulls the edge of Wilde's witticisms is their over-familiarity. You Never Can Tell lays its arguments on heavily and expounds them at wearisome length. "He uses the English language like a truncheon," his contemporary Max Beerbohm said of Shaw. If The Importance of Being Earnest is "a trivial play for serious people", You Never Can Tell is the opposite.
In his vivid history of their relationship, Stanley Weintraub details exchanges between Wilde and Shaw, beginning with Wilde sending Shaw a gift of his first play Lady Windermere's Fan, with the inscription "Op 1 of the Hibernian School, London '93". Shaw reciprocated with Op 2, his first play, Widowers' Houses. They got as far as Op 5 (An Ideal Husband). The Hibernian School remained a place to smuggle messages. In Earnest, a sly dig at vegetarianism and the content of intellectual magazines may have been for Shaw's benefit, while Shaw's unreal characters declaring themselves "earnest" so often, seems like an echoing parody.
It might be a stretch to look for mutual acknowledgement in the productions at the Abbey and Gate, but I was gratified to see director Patrick Mason make room in his Earnest for a toy train just as Conall Morrison launches a toy liner to announce the arrival of Shaw's characters to a sea resort. It's a small thing, a fleeting point of contact, but a reconciling connection. Because of each other, these two giants of theatre found some room to play.