A Good Ladies’ Tailor

Brigid Brophy

  • Bernard Shaw and the Actresses by Margot Peters
    Columbus, 461 pp, £8.75, March 1981, ISBN 0 385 12051 6

Mozart had a discernible tendency to fall in love with his sopranos, Shaw something little short of a compulsion to fall in love with, first, women who took singing lessons from his mother and then, after he turned dramatist, his actresses. This must be one of the hazards of creating works of art that need executants to perform them. Ordinary lovers are sometimes dismayed to find that their beloved is in effect their own invention, a fantasy they have unwittingly devised to inhabit the attractive externals of some real person; and something similar seems liable to happen in reverse when an artist deliberately invents a dramatis persona and designs it, as he goes along, to wear the trappings of a particular executant. It was surely with autobiographical import that Shaw’s imagination was seized by the fable of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his own creature. When he eventually wrote Pygmalion, he designed the role of Eliza for Mrs Patrick Campbell. He went to persuade her to take it and, as he reported to Ellen Terry, ‘fell head over ears in love with her in thirty seconds’.

Shaw was at the time 55 and Mrs Pat, who, on taking Shaw’s hand, performed what he called the ‘infamous, abandoned trick’ of brushing it against her breasts, 47. (She was 49 by the time she ‘created’ Eliza on the stage.) They set a stern and inspiring example to us all.

Eliza, Shaw told Ellen Terry in 1912, was ‘almost as wonderful a fit’ for Mrs Pat as Lady Cicely (the role he had lovingly designed for her in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion) for Ellen Terry: ‘for I am,’ he added, ‘a good ladies’ tailor, whatever my shortcomings.’ Perhaps it is just that the psychological circumstances coincide or perhaps Shaw was alluding to Mozart, his ‘master beloved by masters’, some of whose letters were known, though a collected edition did not appear until 1914. The 21-year-old Mozart reported to his father in 1778 that he had tried to compose an aria (K.294) for the tenor Anton Raaff, but, deciding it would go better for a soprano, designed it instead ‘exactly for’ the voice of Aloysia Weber. (Mozart père had no difficulty in reading the unwritten information that he was in love with her.) Mozart prefaced his account with the remark: ‘For I like an aria to fit a singer as perfectly as a well-made suit of clothes.’

From music pupils to actresses was a short step for Shaw’s susceptibility. After all, he treated the casts of his plays as if they were his drama pupils, a habit that provoked, as Ms Peters records, mild remonstrance from some established players. Yet his tuition was necessary – precisely because he composed plays as though they were operas and required actors to approach his lines of dialogue as though they were singers approaching a vocal line. He was trying, he told one actress, ‘to do fine counterpoint’: in three parts in Candida, in seven in what he naturally called ‘the finale’ of The Philanderer. He knew that the emotions in his plays had to create ‘new intellectual speech channels’ and even perceived that ‘for some time these will necessarily appear so strange and artificial that it will be supposed that they are incapable of conveying emotion’ – a still current misapprehension which he combated by, again, operatic analogy: ‘They said for many years, remember, that Wagner’s endless melody was nothing but discord.’

I imagine it was the Vandaleur Lee ‘method’ of training the singing voice (which, Shaw claimed, preserved his mother’s voice ‘perfectly until her death at over 80’) that Shaw adapted to speech, first training himself as a public speaker, with results to be heard in recordings of his broadcasts, and then training his performers. Shavian drama demands a conductor’s view of the strategy (the pacing and dynamics) and a singer’s of the tactics: rhythmical phrasing; plosive consonants and pure, melody-carrying vowels; equal values for the two-note ‘I am’ and ‘did not’ which he prefers more often than idiom warrants to the naturalistic slurred contractions. Now that his own tuition is vanishing from living memory, the London theatre has lost its grip on Shavian style. It could be recovered more swiftly than, say, the only recently rediscovered knack of performing Monteverdi, since all that is needed is to saturate everyone connected with a Shaw production in performances of the operas of Mozart and Wagner, which are the essential sources (infinitely more than Ibsen) of Shaw’s playwright’s technique.

Ms Peters is not particularly alert to musical Shaw, but she appreciates him as literature and is in general a relief after the preternatural proportion he has attracted of duds and dunces. She seems to have small impulse to create literature herself. Her points are more correct than telling, and she seldom builds them into an argument. When it is not directly quoting, her book is heavyish going. It is written with surprising barbarism. People decline from invitations and separate with each other. It declines not from but into grammatical monstrosity: ‘She had might as well ... ’ Ms Peters regularly writes ‘titivate’ where she means ‘titillate’. Yet she quotes Shaw using ‘titivate’ correctly. (What can she suppose him to be saying when he writes of his secretary’s ‘titivating herself’ in his presence?) Her book is best read as an intelligent though inelegant commentary on Shaw’s early and middle letters and plays and on the novels he wrote in the 19th century. Of the short novel he published in 1932 she gets the very title wrong. And poor Henry Arthur Jones must have suffered enough from his name without being transposed into Arthur Henry.

Shaw’s near-compulsion was not a fetish. He was capable of loving women who were neither singers nor actresses. Indeed, he married one of them – who, if Ms Peters has correctly interpreted his reticent account, reversed the conventions of the time by going to bed with him before they were married but not after. Ms Peters is chiefly interested, however, in the actress-manageresses who put Ibsen and Shaw into currency in the English theatre, and the most informative part of her book gives substance to the names of Florence Farr and of Janet Achurch, whose sad and drink-ruined career Shaw had pre-invented in The Irrational Knot.

The feminism of the turn of the 19th century found a focus, if not leadership, in dramatic heroines, whether the New Woman of Ibsen or the merely novelty woman fabricated by Pinero and played by, par excellence, Mrs Pat. In this it was comparable to the feminism of the Restoration, which was focused by the English theatre’s discovery that it could no longer make do with boys but must have women players, and which was actually prepared to countenance women dramatists too. It was comparable also to 18th-century feminism because that owed much to the runaway international vogue for opera, where skilled women were needed for reasons both dramatic and musical, since the castrato voice, while it might match the register, could not replace the timbre of their voices. The playhouse and the opera house, junctions of Society and Bohemia, made women fashionable, the questions of what and how they thought and felt piquant. Alan Dent’s biography of Mrs Patrick Campbell quotes an expression by George Cornwallis-West of the excitement generated: ‘people flocked to see a play written by one brilliant woman and produced by another.’ He was writing of the year 1909; the playwright was Lady Randolph Churchill, the producer (and principal actress) Mrs Pat. Cornwallis-West married them both.

Public curiosity about women could be satisfied also, though silently, by novels. The standard opera seria aria where the heroine declares herself torn between love and duty has a close copy in the heroine’s accounts of her feelings in epistolary novels. Independent of performers, novels kept going through the fluctuations in the fashionableness of women in the theatre, and for social reasons they were more likely than plays and operas to be by, as well as partly about, women. Ms Peters may be right in surmising that the £200-a-week Irving paid Ellen Terry in the Nineties ‘probably made her, with the exception of the Queen, England’s highest-paid woman’, but my guess is that, if there is a contestant, she was a novelist. Marie Corelli, for instance, is estimated (in Eileen Bigland’s biography) to have been averaging £10,000 a novel by 1901, and she had been writing roughly one a year since 1886.

Shaw’s own intrinsic feminism Ms Peters attributes to his being ‘the “complete outsider” ’, whose social position, without money, formal education or power, resembled women’s. This is true, though as thousands of men shared the position and weren’t feminists, you are still left with an inherent something to reckon with; and I would rather myself place the point of resemblance in his being a complete insider. After his spells in the Dublin land agent’s office and with the Bell Telephone Company in England he was a resolute stay-at-home, undomesticated but deeply domestic, and resentful, after his marriage, even of the travels his wife made him undertake. Ironically, he helped emancipate middle-class women, including his future wife, whom he employed as secretary, by giving them the dignity (in socialist eyes) of going out to work, but the transaction left him merely an employer in his own home, which every middle-class housewife was at that period, a seeming capitalist but without capital. I suspect it was his own self-employed homeworker status that misled Shaw into thinking that copyright was a species of property in economic reality as well as by legal fiction, and into supposing that artistic creators are to be analysed as capitalists, collecting royalties on their property as landlords collect rent on theirs, whereas they are in socio-economic fact workers, though workers of a special kind since their labour needs no visible raw material but creates something out of, apparently, nothing, rather as energy can create matter.

The hero of Man and Superman is given Shaw’s intellectual characteristics and passages of his spiritual autobiography but not Shaw’s social position. Shaw could not have appended to his name ‘M.I.R.C. (Member of the Idle Rich Class)’. I think it is the heroine, Shaw’s Everywoman, driven by the Life Force to unscrupulous lengths to secure a father and a home for her children and thereby fulfil her biological vocation, who incarnates the inmost depths of Shaw: a Shaw driven by the Life Force and his vocation to a deliberately childless marriage which he ever afterwards suspected had the unscrupulous purpose of providing the necessary home-workplace and financial security for him to give birth to his masterpieces.

Her condensed narrative cannot substitute for their autobiographies, biographies of them and, still less, their correspondences with Shaw, but Ms Peters makes a good job of Ellen Terry and Mrs Patrick Campbell, who reigned over the English theatre, and Shaw’s heart, like perfect images of Sacred and Profane Love. She might have mentioned that the name Shaw gave his Superman, John Tanner, an Anglicised version of Don Juan Tenorio (the ‘Don’ being translated into ‘M.I.R.C.’), was by bizarre chance the name of Mrs Patrick Campbell’s father. I think Shaw may have had an unconscious superstitious fatality about names, since, by another bizarre chance, he married someone of the same surname (Townshend) as his first (land agent) employer. And given that she remarks that Mrs Pat could ‘play with him like a child in his dream world’, she might have made space, among the book’s excellent photographs, for Max’s two drawings of the pair as they appeared to their respective selves (romping, child-like, hand in hand) and as they appeared to each other (dessicated Shaw shrinking from overpowering and overhanging Mrs Pat).

Ms Peters makes a good point of Shaw’s respect for Irving, who was perhaps Shaw’s only worthy antagonist. Shaw never wholly won the tussle for Ellen Terry’s heart and professional soul. I have a strong feeling that Irving’s nobly sinister appearance and his emotional preying on Ellen Terry were, whether knowingly or not, put by his business manager, Bram Stoker, into Dracula. No more did Shaw ever wholly entice Ellen Terry from the middlebrow world into the intelligentsia. In her private life she broke every middle-class convention of the period and yet came through with the aura of holiness Homer attributes to the elderly Helen of Troy. To Shaw’s announcement that he had fallen in love with Beatrice Stella Patrick Campbell, Ellen Terry made the exactly right reply that could come only from a heroic, holy and exactly right personality: ‘I’m in love with Mrs Campbell too, or rather I’d like to be, but something tugs me back.’