Backstage chat: What Shaw takes

Three actors in Portland Center Stage’s "Major Barbara" detail the challenges of performing the loquacious and provocative playwright

George Bernard Shaw, a quintessential man of the theater, had a very high regard for himself and only occasionally for his actors. (He did fall in love with a couple of his leading ladies, but to no particular delight to either them or him.) As a playwright/producer, he worked as the de facto director of many of his original productions, and was a rigorous taskmaster. His plays required smart actors with fine elocution, realistic craft, and impeccable comic ability.

Shaw, demanding.

And he could be scalding of actors who let him down, as witnessed by this note to the actor Louis Calvert, the original Frank Undershaft in Major Barbara: “I have taken a box for Friday and had a hundredweight of cabbages, dead cats, eggs and gingerbeer bottles stacked in it. Every word you fluff, every speech you unact, I will shy something at you. … You are an imposter, a sluggard, a blockhead, a shirk, a malingerer, and the worst actor that ever lived or ever will live. I will apologize to the public for engaging you: I will tell your mother of you.”

Any actor who performs Shaw has sympathy for Calvert, because the plays contain some of the wordiest dialogue that’s ever taken to the stage. (His prefaces to the plays are often even longer.) Written at a time when both comedies and dramas were five-act, two-intermission affairs, Shaw’s plays, uncut, can easily tip into four- and five-hour long evenings. Thanks to edits, the current production at Portland Center Stage of Major Barbara, his 1905 play about a young female officer in the Salvation Army, runs a trim two and a half hours.

Yet cut Shaw is still Shaw, so I put the question to the three leads of this production: Is Shaw verbose?

Brian Weaver as Adolphus bangs the drum; Charles Leggett as Underwood looks askance. Photo: Jennie Baker / Portland Center Stage

“Hell yeah,” says Brian Weaver, who plays Barbara’s poetic swain Adolphus Cusins. “These are the longest sentences I’ve ever tried to say. It’s an exciting challenge to start these sentences and get to the end of them. It’s similar to Shakespeare, especially his use of rhetoric. The acting is powerful and active and you have to act on the words, not in the pause.”

“For a modern audience, probably,” says Hanley Smith, who plays Barbara. “We have made quite a few cuts in the text, but they were hard to find, as everything feeds into something else in this play. But I actually love the technical challenge in delivering Shaw’s dialogue. It requires deep breaths to get through lengthy sentences, a strong handle on your own point of view to make your argument, and a good sense of rhythm, pace, and British pluck to keep the comedy and the energy flowing. The audiences here are wonderfully smart and game and don’t seem stymied by Shaw’s language in the least!”

Hanley Smith, a good and proper Major Barbara. Photo: Jennie Baker / Portland Center Stage

But Charles Leggett, who plays her father, the wily munitions magnate Undershaft, disputes the charge of verbosity, and believes the language accurately reflects the characters. “The people in his plays are for the most part really smart, and very well-educated, and very opinionated. That’s just a fact about these people. I don’t know what’s wrong with writing plays about smart, educated people. They’re comedies, so you want to clip it along, but I think to whatever extent there’s repetition in the rhetoric, it’s all part of the rhythm, if it’s done at proper pace.”

The verbiage, as Leggett suggests, serves a purpose in Shaw. The brilliance of the language is used to show highly intelligent people conveying some complex and unpalatable ideas. When Weaver first read Major Barbara, he admits, the thesis of the play unsettled him. “In contrast to almost all plays that I’ve encountered, which to some degree pander to a liberal audience, Shaw seems to know he’s speaking to a liberal audience, and he really attacks us. He goes for the throat in his indictment of himself, and shows us all our hypocrisy. And he lets the other side win! Capitalism wins, and we’re sitting there, wrestling with that, and our own failure to change the system.”

The actor’s own discomfort with Shaw’s thesis also hints at another requirement for playing Shaw: a willingness to invest yourself in his ideas. “I feel as though we are continually peeling away layers of an endless onion,” says Smith, “and each time I think I have figured out the overall thesis of Major Barbara, some line will hit me differently than the night before and will make me rethink. It’s as though we are all playing pieces of Shaw’s own mind, in all its contradiction and brilliance. It’s a wonderfully fun challenge.”

Charles Leggett as the provocative Andrew Undershaft. Photo: Jennie Baker / Portland Center Stage

Finding emotion and humanity is a challenge for actors in a Shaw play as well. Yeats infamously characterized Shaw as “a sewing machine that smiles and smiles,” and the playwright’s strident rejection of emotion and sentimentality can make his characters seem like little more than puppets for his personal philosophy. To overcome this, a detailed sensitivity to text is invaluable. “I have a line in this play that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever said on stage,” says Leggett. “Barbara’s in despair, because I’ve shown her [that] despite her best intentions, it’s money from people like me that makes the Army tick, and she’s lost her faith. And I talk her out of that despair. Very swiftly, with one line, and it lands. ‘You’ve learnt something. That always feels at first as if you’ve lost something.’ That’s a beautiful human statement. That is not dry and is not cold. Betrays some knowledge of the Bible, perhaps.”

All three actors believe the challenge is worth it, both for them and for audiences. “The case I would make for this production is that it’s lightning fast,” says Weaver. “Our attention spans may be short, but when exciting information is coming to us in an entertaining way, people can lean in.”

Smith agrees. “I feel strongly that we must fight to balance that brevity and superficiality with long-form, deeply considered arguments, with sitting in a theater with 500 strangers and sharing a once-in-a-lifetime communal experience, with letting Shaw’s language remind us of the beauty, variety, specificity, and power of language. These things — Reason, Community, Love, Language — are what will save us from ourselves. Not only can I make an argument for Shaw in our time, but I think he and other playwrights like him are essential for our time.”

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