Despite his contemporary relevance, George Bernard Shaw is not often taught in schools. The Shaw Society aims to put that right, writes Dan Carrier
George Bernard Shaw in 1914
GEORGE Bernard Shaw once said: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”
Shaw’s extraordinary output has continuing relevance today and it is the mission of the Shaw Society to spread his work to new audiences – and help people understand how this Irish playwright has much to tell us.
It was 1941 and the playwright’s 85th birthday when the Society began. Shaw was not best pleased and wanted no involvement, but the determination of a Shavian, Dr Fitz Loewenstein, saw him finally give in on the condition he did not have to do anything.
The Society began with a strong emphasis on Shaw’s politics, social and cultural thought.
Today, the Society continues to host talks and lectures and also has a mission to introduce Shaw to new audiences, reminding theatregoers of the range and impact of his work.
Actor and director Jonas Cemm is a Shaw Society trustee.
“It was very political and full of debate at the beginning – the left-wing intelligentsia were members, Fabians, members of the Humanist Society. Some of our members are still in that vein but it has become more performance-based.
“Part of our problem is people tend to think he is no longer relevant but that is just not the case,” says Jonas.
“Shaw writes about women’s rights, about poverty, and landlords. His play The Millionairess, which happened to have a run during the banking crisis of 2008, has the lines – ‘Never put your money in the bank’. He saw the challenges of capitalism and the dangers of finance.
“People seem to think Shaw is all about boring parlour dramas, but that is so far from the truth.”
Shaw was not afraid to tackle subjects Victorian prudes thought best avoided.
Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in 1898 and staged in 1902, was about a woman who worked as a prostitute and then ran her own brothel, to her daughter’s shame.
“It illustrates his approach to issues that others were uncomfortable recognising,” adds Jonas.
His place in the literary hierarchy means he is recommended for teaching in schools – but is not a go-to for English departments.
“We want to get Shaw back into classrooms. He is on the curriculum but it is rarely picked up,” says Jonas.
“Pygmalion is well-known, but it is not often taught.”
Encouraging revivals is another way of spreading Shavian thought.
“We sponsor theatre companies and showcase new writing in the style of Shaw,” he adds.
Shaw offered a running commentary on contemporary issues, not just with biting satire but through letters and essays.
“He was what today would be called a troll,” jokes Jonas.
“If he was around now he would be on Twitter and throwing out the opposing argument to whatever he was reading. He would argue, for example, at length with GK Chesterton – whatever views Chesterton espoused he would take the opposing argument. It was about creating healthy debate.”
“He loved shaking things up, and it doesn’t do to take GBS too seriously.”
Over the decades – Shaw died in 1950 aged 94 – he was never out of the public glare.
“He was one of the first modern celebrities in terms of he knew his own brand and how to sell himself – everyone knew what he looked like.”
Shaw’s longevity meant not only was he engrained in the nation’s cultural psyche, it meant he fell quickly out of fashion. It was as if his fame had made him too commonplace.
“By 1960, people were rather sick of him and he fell out of favour,” remarks Jonas.
“They lumped him in with Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. But he was the grandfather of modern theatre and was firmly entrenched in the 20th century.”
Shaw and Wilde knew each other, and he also worked with Coward.
“They were contemporaries and ‘frenemies’,” adds Jonas.
“Shaw advocated for Wilde when he was arrested.”
Both Irish-born, their families had interacted when they were children.
“Strangely enough, Wilde’s father, who was a doctor, fixed a squint in Shaw’s father eye.”
Performing at Shaw’s Corner, Shaw’s former home in Hertfordshire, opened the Shavian world up for Jonas.
“I had read Pygmalion. I knew Shaw, but did not really know him,” he recalls.
“I was asked back to read a Shaw play and that was my gateway.”
Jonas runs the Shaw 2020 theatre company, promoting and performing the works and supporting other companies.
“Shaw is fresh, human and relevant,” he says.
“The question for us is how do we tell everyone that?”
Shaw never truly goes away and his work is set for a mainstream revival. There are currently two films in the making – Mr Shaw Goes To Hollywood, starring Derek Jacobi, and Not Bloody Likely, the story of the making of Pygmalion, with Helena Bonham Carter and Pierce Brosnan. Both celebrate the back stories of his work and through them his life and times.
For Jonas, acting and directing Shaw’s work is a complex and rich experience, and done with Shaw’s spectral figure of hovering over his shoulder.
“He wrote lengthy prefaces full of stage directions and repetition,” adds Jonas.
“For every play he wrote about his research and why he had done it.”
Adapting Shaw requires understanding his literary nuances. “If you cut his work too much you lose the rhythm he deliberately creates,” says Jonas.
“He is challenging. All through his writing he was ahead of his time. He was modern and by the 1960s people eventually caught up with him.
“We were already living in a GBS world – which was why he felt out of favour after he died – and why his revival today has much to tell us.”
• For more details of the Shaw Society visit www.shawsociety.org.uk
• Jonas Cemm is appearing at the York Rise Street Party, NW5, on Sunday, September 10, reading excerpts from Shaw’s works.
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