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G. B. Shaw Is Sexy

September 10, 2007

Why do younger audiences shy away from Shaw? His plays are performed a great deal in the Bay Area but they mostly attract people over 50. Last night's pretty packed performance of Heartbreak House at Berkeley Rep, for instance, was a sea of wrinkles and grey hair.

Granted, the theatre in general as an artform doesn't lure young audiences in droves. And Berkeley Rep probably counts baby boomers as its main subscriber base. Yet while many of that theatre's productions bring in younger crowds (Martin McDonagh's Pillowman being an obvious recent example) this one kept them away.

I think the main reason for this is the public's perception of Shaw. It's hard to think of the genius social activist and writer as ever having been young himself. The images of Shaw that are always published in the media all show him in his dotage, with gaunt cheeks and snowy whiskers. He looks like an ascetic Santa Claus. On top of that, his plays involve a lot of conversation and not too much action. To the uninitiated, his dramas may seem to be bastions of conservatism, with their upper-crust English characters sporting monocles and taking tea.

As a result, Shaw has come to stand for the old guard, when in fact he's a renegade. His theories about such things as the role of women in society, the dangers of capitalism, and the underhand political machinery behind wars were so far ahead of his time. Watching a play like Heartbreak House today is thrilling not just because of its wit, clever use of metaphor and rampaging stance against apathy. Though written close to a century ago, the dialogue itself feels dangerous. We listen to these "old fashioned" characters gesticulating with their porcelain cups and still manage to feel shocked by what they say. Just goes to show that a playwright need not give us dismembered bodies and heroin addicts to make us think and feel. Shaw does it all with language.

In Heartbreak House, ingenue Ellie Dunn falls in love with a man four times her age. Old Captain Shotover (who many commentators think of as a mouthpiece for Shaw) is 88 years old but commands the young woman's respect and adoration. If Ellie Dunn can fall for Shotover, then it should be easy for those among us under 40 to fall head over heels for Shaw.


  • I liked sexual intercourse because of its amazing power of producing a celestial flood of emotion and exaltation of existence which, however momentary, gave me a sample of what may one day be the normal state of being for mankind in intellectual ecstasy.

    I always gave the wildest expression to this in a torrent of words...


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 10, 2007 at 12:27 PM  

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