The Shaw Festival, with a little less Shaw

Audiences aren’t quite so enamoured these days of the once celebrated playwright

The Shaw Festival, with a little less

Shaw Photography by David Cooper

Is George Bernard Shaw box-office poison? The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake , Ont., announced that its 2011-12 season won’t feature any of its namesake’s plays in its main Festival Theatre, instead putting two of his works in smaller venues. Richard Ouzounian wrote in the Toronto Star that the current Festival Theatre production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House “has been reportedly playing to houses as low as 30 per cent.” Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the festival, told Maclean’s that while some Shaw plays have been “hugely popular” on the smaller stages, the playwright can’t carry big, expensive shows every year: “What I’m finding strategically,” she says, “is that the notion of always having a Shaw play that can hit it big on the Festival stage is unrealistic.” That’s why she says “being the Shaw Festival is frankly a lot more than doing Shaw plays.”

You don’t have to agree with Germaine Greer, who took to the Guardian this year to call Shaw “less irreverent than irrelevant,” to see that the Irish iconoclast’s fame has slipped since 1962, when the festival was founded. And the neglect starts at a young age: Leonard Conolly, a professor at Trent University and president of the International Shaw Society, says Shaw “is less studied in high schools than he used to be”; Maxwell says “we’re dealing with entire generations of kids who don’t get taught Shaw and who wouldn’t immediately know who he was.”

No one would have expected this when the Nobel Prize-winning Shaw died in 1950. Widely considered the greatest English-language playwright since Shakespeare, it seemed natural that Canada should give him a festival a few years after Stratford started. But now, Maxwell says, Shaw “doesn’t have as many of those big pieces” that everyone has read. Without a star—like Christopher Plummer in Stratford’s version of Caesar and Cleopatra a few years ago—many Shaw plays won’t draw a crowd on their own. “If a theatre does Hamlet, everybody knows about that,” Conolly says. “If a theatre does Misalliance, it simply won’t be familiar.”

What happened to Shaw’s reputation? It might be that his trademark style is part of a tradition of theatre that no longer exists: his plays are “very tied to the mores of the time,” Maxwell says, and “many of them take place in drawing rooms.” This style hasn’t been a drawback for some of his contemporaries, like Noël Coward, whose lighthearted plays are becoming increasingly popular at the Shaw Festival. But Shaw plays, with their long political arguments, don’t work as pure light comedy; Conolly says that audiences must pay attention to “the depth of thinking, the complexity of the language and the ideas.” While the ideas in a play like Major Barbara—which dares to argue that a weapons manufacturer may do more good than the Salvation Army—are what lift it above an ordinary comedy, a poor production can seem like a comedy that’s too long and not funny enough.

Other playwrights have been reinvented for a new era, but Shaw was under copyright in Canada until 2000, so changes could only be made with the blessing of his estate. Now that he’s public domain, directors are starting to reinterpret him, but it’s a slow process, and Maxwell adds that in some countries it’s still impossible; when the festival toured her production of Saint Joan, where she took the epilogue and transferred it to the beginning of the play, “we had to get permission from the Shaw estate to take our version to the States, because it’s not out of copyright there.”

If there’s evidence that Shaw can be popular if he’s revised a bit, it can be found in the very Festival Theatre where Shaw’s originals have trouble. My Fair Lady, the musical version of Shaw’s Pygmalion, was never staged by the purist Shaw Festival until this season—when it became the biggest hit they’ve ever had. Maxwell is alert to the possibilities of Shaw rewrites: for the successful current production of On the Rocks, she commissioned playwright Michael Healey (The Drawer Boy) “to remix it and give it to us from a contemporary writer’s point of view.” Shakespeare survives because productions are free to cut, change, and add music to his work. Maybe it will work for Shaw too.

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