A Revolution in Letters

My Dear Miss Terry, devised by Jean Rogers, Rialto Theatre, Brighton, Thursday, 31 March, 7.30pm.

Bernard Shaw is often bracketed with Henrik Ibsen, and certainly he was a champion of the Norwegian playwright, fully 28 years his senior, but whose plays were only becoming a staple of the English stage at about the same time as Shaw's own, that is in the 1890s and the early years of the Twentieth Century.

And if Ibsen was shocking for the late Victorian sensibilities, exposing a dark and violent layer beneath polite society, reflecting perhaps the Scandinavian schizophrenia of their Viking antecedents, farmers and family men at home, rampaging marauders abroad, Shaw was determined to take matters much, much further.

His best plays, Mrs Warren's Profession, Major Barbara, Pygmalion, St Joan, among them, while effecting a surface of genteel intellectualism, are really all about the ruthless, vicious exploitation of one section of society by another.

It's an interesting fact that the major British playwrights following Shakespeare, almost until Harold Pinter, are all Irish. Is this because the Imperial project, which roughly coincides with these years, suppressed the kind of conflict and dissent that drama needs to survive? Shaw's theme, that people seem blind to the societal deformity that such exploitation engenders, has it's counterpart in Africa, Australia, the Americas, India and, indeed, Ireland. Was it necessary to see first hand the effect on the indigenous population in order to have a cold-eyed take on a reality universally invisible to the Home Counties, or even the industrial Midlands?

In the 1890s Shaw was a failed novelist, a jobbing music critic and an emerging playwright, ignored by commercial producers, and suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain, so it has to be assumed that he couldn't believe his luck when he received a letter from Ellen Terry, famous actress, asking him a favour on behalf of an acquaintance of hers, an aspiring singer.

Ellen Terry was an insider, a power even, diva in a theatrical tradition that Shaw was determined to upset. To think he could be successful in this project seemed, at the time, beyond ridiculous. But he kept in touch. And she kept writing back. This led ultimately to Ellen Terry producing, with her own money, a season of Ibsen and Shaw, which was a financial disaster. Shaw made it up to her though, with a later play, Captain Brassbound's Conversion, which Terry toured to the States with great success.

These letters then, from the 1890s, represent the conspiracy of two revolutionaries, bent on unseating the reigning monarch of the West End, Sir Henry Irving, Terry's partner (Bram Stoker was business manager) at the Lyceum and possibly lover. Shaw, not to be outdone on the romantic front, keeps introducing into the correspondence his own inamorata, Janet Achurch, a noted Ibsen actress and for whom he wrote Candida, Mrs Patrick Campbell, who created some his most famous roles, and the rich heiress he would eventually marry, Charlotte Payne-Townshend.

Given, then, that this was a period of extraordinary frisson, theatrically speaking, that revolution was very much in the air, that Shaw was determined to find a metaphorical language to bring the cruelty of the time home to the drawing rooms of the suburbs, it is a pity that the subtext of these letters isn't made more of, that there is something of the Tenterden Glee Club in this rendering.

Henry Irving was the full stop of a tradition, theatrical and literary, that had begun with Wordsworth and Coleridge a hundred years earlier as a response to the de-humanisation effect of the industrial revolution, of people being seen as machines, or worse, the servants of machines.

That the sublime, all around in nature, found its counterpart in man (and woman), was ballast to those who were all for making the working class nothing more than animals. The extremes observed in the Alps, in a storm, in the beauty of Italy, in a classical statue, these mighty forces were also present in human nature, and Henry Irving and his ilk brought this to the stage to great success.

Shaw's project was to restore intelligence to the theatre, to keep the largeness, the great themes, the acting style, the familiar settings, but to confront the audience when they are their most comfortable and therefore vulnerable. It is somewhat ironic, then, that just as Shaw and Terry were getting started, the other great revolution of the time was the invention of the moving picture, the cinema.

The cinema, with its close-ups and documentary capability, has taken drama away from melodramatic overstatement in style, but has retained the emotional primacy at the expense of Shaw's focus on intelligence. Melodrama now, is a byword for false, for exaggerated over-acting, for something old fashioned and of no interest to modern theatre.

And yet, listening to these letters being read out, it seemed that the understated realistic style employed was what was false, that if the actors had utilised melodrama, as Shaw and Terry would have done themselves, the subtext, the richness of what was being said and inferred would have found genuine expression.

Film realism had made us embarrassed about largeness of expression. Perhaps it's time for another revolution.

Paul Corcoran