By Bill Marx
When George Bernard Shaw’s comedy Misalliance, subtitled “a debate,” premiered in 1910, critics couldn’t make heads or tails of the play. It didn’t matter if the reviewer was sympathetic to Shavian excess — the evening’s self-parodying polemics and prophetic theater-of-the-absurd trappings were too much. The production closed after 11 performances: the script, along with the dramatist’s earlier talkathon, Getting Married, was quickly tossed into the neglected drama slot.
Yet Misalliance is revived occasionally, the latest a jolly but superficial production at the Publick Theatre (closes tomorrow) that excises the play’s intriguing unruliness and cerebral gymnastics. The resulting airy farce, revolving around rich people behaving badly at the turn-of-the-century, makes it look as if Shaw domesticated the comedy of Noel Coward, when it was the other way around.
In his review of Misalliance, Max Beerbohm says that his enthusiasm for Shaw’s loquaciousness was finally tested because “a debate, to stand the test of the theatre, must be treated as an art-form. It must have a central point, and it must be progressive; must be about something and lead to something.” What Max misses is that in Misalliance Shaw satirizes the art of making a point, including expectations the playwright himself has anything sensible to say.
Shaw pokes fun at himself and other modern thinkers (such as his foe Charles Darwin) through the admiration of all things “progressive” by the wealthy underwear mogul John Tarleton. Anxious to stave off aging, the businessman clings to youth by staying intellectually au courant and sexually voracious outside of his marriage. Tarleton’s feisty daughter, Hypatia, tired of the non-stop gabbing amid the comfortable hypocrisy of well-heeled surroundings, figures the easiest way to escape the house is to settle for the permanent adolescent Bentley, the son of Lord Summerhays. The latter, a former aristocratic colonial governor, has made a romantic play for the young woman.
Shaw had no patience for the gradualism of Darwinian evolution, so the Life Force provides a farcical shock to this early version of Heartbreak House. An airplane crashes into the greenhouse, carrying a vital man for Hypatia to chase and a Polish superwoman, Lina Szczepanowska, to tantalize and rebuke the instantly smitten Tarleton and the other males stewing in their own pampered passivity, including Johnny, Tarleton’s philistine prig of a son.
A “man-woman or woman-man,” Lina lives to the fullest – and maintains her independence — by risking her life daily as a professional acrobat. Her approach to prayer provides a clue to Misalliance’s challenge to the well-made play: “Put [the Bible] up before you on a stand; and open it to the Psalms. When you can read them and understand them, quite quietly and happily, and keep six balls in the air all the time, you are in perfect condition…”
Shaw courts failure by attempting to keep as many issues and characters spinning in the air as he can via paradox and reversed expectations. The downed plane is a deliciously comic giveaway. His focus is on the value of vitality — sexual, theatrical, and mental — rather than on reasoned conclusions. Along with its playful upending of courtship rituals, Misalliance includes eccentric discussions of many social topics: parent-child relationships, class distinctions, public education, political revolution, imperialism and democratic government, eugenics and gender roles. The poor are brought in, somewhat lazily, with the arrival of Gunner, a socialist worker determined to avenge his late mother’s unfair treatment by Tarleton.
If Gunner’s defense of bourgeois morality is dated, Lord Summerhays’ observations on power politics still bite as the Iraqi war rages on:
Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion. When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud, or both…anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you.”
That speech is in the production, but it comes off as a trivial interruption in the smooth march of romantic antics. Director Diego Arciniegas has cut the script to emphasize its whimsy and love play, in the process palming a number of Shavian balls that should be in the air. Slice away at the debates and remove the vampiric pathos of John Tarleton and Lord Summerhays, who are struggling to maintain the vitality of youth, and Misalliance doesn’t seem all that anarchistic, which is a shame. There is more going on at the heart of the play than — as the Boston Globe stage critic claims — “Shaw’s mischievous fascination with social hypocrisy.” According to The Patriot Ledger theater reviewer, at one point Shaw argues for the “equality of the classes.” In truth, the author of Man and Superman had little enthusiasm for equality — he wanted the classes to be abolished gradually.
Still, there’s enough Shavian sparkle to provide an entertaining evening, light and forgettable. Owen Doyle as Tarleton and Steven Barkhimer as Lord Summerhays contribute surprisingly cut-and-dried portraits of the older generation, but some of the younger performers, such as Heather Wood as Hypatia and Debra Ann Lund as Lina, have fun exuding excessively high spirits. Gabriel Kuttner’s goggle-eyed Gunner is also amusing as a soft-hearted Marxist. In the spirit of this breezy production, it should be noted that the phrase “Tennis, anyone?” originated with this play.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.