Wednesday, June 5, 2013

(No.237) Precious & Predictable: theatre, critics & the Shaw Festival

"(No.237) Precious and predictable: theatre, cultural critics and the Shaw festival --
Examples involving Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, 
Somerset Maugham and Hannah Arendt"

by Alastair Rickard

At the end of May one of the New York Times' movie critics, A.O. Scott, favourably reviewed a new German movie about the political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt who lived much of her adult life in the United States and died in 1975. She was highly regarded in certain circles.

Within a few days the Times reported that on its website readers had ranked the movie (one of a minority of dissenters termed it "political science fiction") first among then currently favoured movies.

Given the subject of the movie and the self-selecting audience who recorded their love of it on New York Times' .com, the movie's premier ranking in that particular forum is predictable and, of course, politically precious.

Also precious and predictable is much of the theatre criticism that readers of Toronto's four daily newspapers see from (currently) Robert Cushman in The National Post, Richard Ouzounian of The Toronto Star, John Coulbourn of The Toronto Sun and Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail.

Cushman is by a wide margin the best qualified of the group to be a theatre critic and offers in the main sophisticated and nuanced comments. Also in his favour is the fact that he eschews the sophmoric assigning of 'star' ratings to the plays he reviews -- unlike the Globe and Star critics.

From time to time reading some of these critics' comments I wonder if they have actually attended the same play as I have -- or indeed as have their fellow critics. The divergence of opinion can be amusing (see, for example, my column "Did the critics see the same 'What The Butler Saw'?", No. 111 posted Sept.1, 2010).

I am occasionally reminded of Woody Allen's comment about the movie critic Pauline Kael: she has, said Allen, " all of the qualities of a great critic except judgment".`

I often disagree with some or all of the Toronto dailies' theatre critics. I include in that comment some of their views of the recently opened plays at this season's Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the lake: "Major Barbara" and "Our Betters". Supportive sentiments for an important Canadian cultural institution like the Shaw Festival don't make up for myopic reviews of some of its productions.

Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), the English novelist and playwright, once remarked that he would rather be bored by Marcel Proust than amused by any other writer. I don't feel that way about Maugham or his play "Our Betters" which runs at the Shaw Festival this season.

However, of this season's three Shaw Festival productions of plays set in late 19th and early 20th century England (Shaw's "Major Barbara", Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" and Maugham's "Our Betters") the Maugham play is the most entertaining and well done.

"Our Betters", first staged in New York in 1915, has a focus on rich American heiresses in London seeking aristocratic husbands in need of cash. The crispness and humour of the play's dialogue holds up well. Indeed some of Maugham's lines stand comparison with Oscar Wilde's (from plays before Maugham's) and Noel Coward's (after).

Some critics argue that "Major Barbara", written and premiered in 1905, is George Bernard Shaw's   (1856-1950) greatest play if only because they think it has withstood best the test of society's changing values. I don't agree. I think it is a dated and preachy paen to values to which Shaw had an attachment long before his dotage when he became a defender of Joseph Stalin and the USSR's system.

I am one among many students whose early love of English literature might well have been blighted by this old Fabian socialist chestnut. "Major Barbara" was once a choice from the syllabus available to Ontario high school literature teachers and was made required study for countless students. It was as tedious then as is the final preachy third of the current Shaw Festival production of the play.

Much critical attention paid to this production seems to have been relatively favourable. There has been some pointing to the supposed continuing relevance of the social issues about which Major Barbara and her arms dealer father declaim endlessly. In 2013 there are more entertaining ways to present and absorb liberal verities.

Plays from Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) small canon are usually a pleasure to watch performed. "The Importance of Being Earnest" has been a particular favourite of mine down the years and I treasure the memory of seeing Maggie Smith play Lady Bracknell in  a London West End production.

The Shaw Festival production of Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan", first performed in 1892, works reasonably well except for a bit too much effort for my taste to appear trendy and precious in staging, design and music. Indeed a couple of songs played are about as appropriate to a play set in Victorian London as would be, say, the insertion of "Jailhouse Rock" in a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives". Apart from these irritations, the Shaw Festival's production is worth seeing.

About the plays mentioned in this column:

1. "Our Betters", directed by Morris Panych, runs at the Royal George Theatre through Oct. 27, 2013

2. "Major Barbara", directed by Jackie Maxwell, is at the Royal George Theatre through Oct. 19, 2013

3. "Lady Windermere's Fan", directed by Peter Hinton, is staged at the Festival Theatre until Oct.19, 2013

For ticket details and other information about the 10 plays presented this season at the Shaw Festival, go to




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