The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 24: Bernard Shaw

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Nearly two decades ago, I was accosted by a middle-aged American in the foyer of the National Theatre. Was there one particular play I could recommend? After a moment or two of reflection, I pointed to a poster advertising the theatre's current production of Misalliance. "It's good," I said. "I'm certain you'll enjoy it." He peered closely at the poster and actually started reading it aloud: "Misalliance. A comedy by Bernard Shaw." Then he turned to me thoughtfully. "Bernard Shaw, eh? Would he by any chance be related to George Bernard Shaw?"

That was a period when the National was never without a play by Shaw in its repertoire. How long ago it seems! Now absolutely everything about the man strikes us as irretrievably dated: his beard, his bristly woollen suits, his flirtatious celibacy, his know-all verbosity (garrulity, not brevity, was the soul of Shavian wit), his eccentric caperings and cavortings (eccentricity is the enemy of true, subversive strangeness), his lifelong obsession with phonetic orthography. Even in our mind's eye we cannot help but see Shaw in sepia.

Indeed, he's become such a petrified icon of our cultural history, such a rusty Olympian fossil that it's easily forgotten that he died in 1950 (and actually made a typically clownish appearance on early television). He had therefore known - if not, of course, at first hand - such century- defining events as the Second World War and, specifically, the Holocaust. Did he have anything to say about the latter? Does anyone now recall what he said about it? How could he have anything relevant to say about it, since he belonged to another universe?

And the plays? Candida? Major Barbara? Caesar and Cleopatra? Man and Superman? Pygmalion? John Bull's Other Island? Heartbreak House? Yes, they continue (some of them, at least) to be put on (in English-speaking countries, at least) and they continue presumably to be appreciated, if by an inexorably smaller and older public. (No teenager has ever sported a Bernard Shaw T-shirt or pinned a Bernard Shaw poster to his or her bedroom wall.) But the degree to which Shaw's stock has plummeted can perhaps best be measured by the fact that, two decades ago, when I was accosted in the foyer of the National Theatre, his plays were staged, regularly staged. Now they're revived.