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THEATRE / When something went click for Mr Shaw

'BERNARD SHAW gave a political speech last night. It was preceded by a play.' That is not much of a notice for the opening of Shaw's Widowers' Houses on 9 December 1892, but it is more than the British press bestowed on the centenary of his theatrical debut. The recession has coincided with a modest crop of Shaw revivals (his stock always goes up when we are in trouble); but it was left to a university in Blacksburg, Virginia, to celebrate the birthday of British modern drama with a conference on 'Shaw and the Last Hundred Years'.

The brainchild of Bernard Dukore, Professor of Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech, this was the latest reminder that North America, more than anywhere else on earth, keeps Shaw alive. Not only in what the English dismiss as the 'Shavian industry', but in the great collections in Texas and Guelph universities, the Shaw festivals of Milwaukee and Niagara, and an unending stream of books from such doughty editors as Dan Laurence, Dukore, and Brian Tyson, who has just brought out a massive collection of Shaw's Pall Mall Magazine book reviews. Open it anywhere, and you find a gem. ('England is famous for its poetry. Here are 22 volumes of it. Heigh-ho.')

Shaw is inexhaustible, as Blacksburg reconfirmed with the crowd of biographers, editors, critics, translators, directors, playwrights, physicists, and ministers of religion who turned up for the party. The most notable absentee was Shaw's latest biographer: his work was not much admired by the Americans, and when the title of D H Lawrence's The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd cropped up in debate, the editor of The Shavian declared that most delegates would be in favour of it.

So what did his transatlantic biographers have to tell us? Stanley Weintraub, for example. First, that until lightning struck in 1892, Shaw had no inner drive to become a playwright. He had tried his hand at it but always got stuck, and when his mentor William Archer threw back the first two acts of Widowers' Houses, that looked like another false start. Instead of writing plays, he said he would work to destroy the society that made plays possible. His Diaries lists all the other things he was doing instead of getting on with the third act: tennis, seaside trips, writing doggerel, playing piano duets, on top of his punishing schedule of journalism and lecturing. Then, late in October, 'something clicked' and he simultaneously finished the piece and found his vocation. But with the difference that he did not need productions to make a living, and was free to ignore the theatrical rules, write as he wanted, and even send up the opening of Widowers' Houses with a self-interview in The Star promoting it as Wendover's Horses.

Just what it was that 'clicked', according to another speaker, Christopher Innes, was a 'change in emphasis from what characters do and say to the mental processes of the spectators'. It is they, not the slum landlord Sartorius nor his sold-out son-in-law (a leading part so unsympathetic that nobody wanted to play it), who figure as the social enemy. That is the new factor Shaw inserted into the stage/audience equation: invisible though it was to most of the people who trudged up Dean Street, past Karl Marx's house, to the Royalty Theatre on that rainy December night in 1892.

One eyewitness was Dr John Henderson, an ancestor of the present director of the Niagara Shaw Festival, Christopher Newton, who noted the Royalty's proximity to the slum district of Seven Dials (where Sartorius's real-life tenants were tearing out banisters to make fires), before quoting the doctor's opinion that the highlight of the show was the solo performance of its red-bearded author. After a three-week run, the Royalty followed up Widowers' Houses with a real success - Charley's Aunt.

Something else undoubtedly happened to Shaw between his pugnacious debut and his charming return with Arms and the Man two years later. Many other topics came up at Blacksburg: Shaw's discovery of New Zealand (whence he returned in 1934 resolved to cleanse his vocabulary of ethnic labels); his difficulties in passing the Dublin Abbey Theatre's PQ (Peasant Quality) test; his legacy to American drama - visibly embodied in the person of the octogenarian radical playwright Barrie Stavis, whose work appears in more than 20 languages (including forthcoming premieres in Moscow and Tbilisi) while remaining unknown on the English-speaking stage. Semioticians and feminists were out in force, turning the linguistic tables on Henry Higgins ('Eliza as Derridean Text'), and casting a cold eye on Shaw's half-hearted support for female suffrage ('I strongly suspect that the cry for the vote is often the cry for the key to one's own bedroom'). What conspicuously did not come up during the conference was Shaw's transition from the theatre of avant-garde Soho to the commercial world of the Avenue Theatre and the Haymarket.

Some Shavian converts believe that he can do no wrong. The conversion can be heroic; as in the case of Dan Laurence's encounter in the 1950s with Shaw's bibliographer, Fritz Loewenstein, who had abandoned his task for want of a pounds 100 fee. Enraged by this, Laurence resolved to do the job himself. It took him 26 years. With that kind of dedication, it was no surprise that the atmosphere at Blacksburg sometimes verged on idolatry. Not, however, when Britain's Peter Barnes arrived on a high tide of bad taste jokes ('If you're carrying a video camera and you see me being beaten up by the LA police, for God's sake drop it and help me') to knock large holes in Saint Joan. Nor during the post-mortem on the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of Farfetched Fables.

We sat around being polite about this Shavian last gasp: as an expression of post-nuclear despair, and an amazing achievement for a man of 92. Montgomery Davis's production, with its kaleidoscopic lighting design and comic performances suggesting life on a distant planet, was certainly good to look at. Then Christopher Newton stood up. Why, he asked, should anyone want to do these 'rotten little plays? What's the point of discussing them? We must make the theatre more exciting - so that people are not just going there for expensive naps.' It could have been the author of Widowers' Houses talking.