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     Volume 5 Issue 107 | August 11, 2006|

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View from the Bottom

150 years of George Barnard Shaw

GB Shaw Pygmalion &
My Fair Lady

Shahnoor Wahid

Once a renowned and beautiful stage actress met George Bernard Shaw outside a theatre hall. She came bashfully upto him and said, “ Sir, it would be so wonderful if we were to marry and have a child. It would have my beauty and your brain.” Shaw, known for his thin features, and humour, bowed and said without losing a moment, “Yes, Madam, that would be wonderful. But I am afraid what would happen if the child were to get your brain and my looks!"

Then once during a visit to the USA, he said in a banquet given in his honour, “I am convinced that fifty percent of the Americans are fools.” That obviously angered his hosts. They were quite noisy in their protest. Shaw immediately said, “No, I was wrong. Fifty percent of the Americans are wise.” It is said that this last statement had made his hosts very happy.

Satirist par excellence
The literary world is celebrating 150 years of GB Shaw, an immensely talented dramatist, a satirist, a literary critic, freethinker, socialist and women's rights activist of the 20th century. This Irish writer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. It is said that though Shaw accepted the honour he refused to take the money.

Shaw's childhood was a period of hardship and pain growing up amidst poverty. His father was a careless man who spent his money on hard drinks. Since then Shaw despised all sorts of alcoholic beverages. He also became a vegetarian. Besides studying in Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School he earned pocket money by working as a junior clerk at the age of 15.

Shaw - a believer in social equality - is best remembered in his (class conscious) play Pygmalion.

As a young man Shaw joined the Fabian Society in 1884. This middle-class socialist organisation of the time had attracted many other writers and intellectuals including famous writer HG Wells. It is chronicled that HG Wells once wrote to Shaw the following lines: "You are, now that Wilde is dead, the one living playwright in my esteem." This comment came after Wells had received Shaw's Three Plays for Puritans (1901).

A supporter of social equality he supported abolition of private property, radical change in the voting system, campaigned for the simplification of spelling, and reform of the English alphabet.

Below are some paragraphs from a biography on GB Shaw that would enlighten readers about some of his works and his unique lifestyle: “ As a public speaker, Shaw gained the status of one of the most sought-after orators in England. In 1898 Shaw married the wealthy Charlotte Payne-Townshend. They settled in 1906 in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot St. Lawrence. Shaw remained with Charlotte until her death, although he was occasionally linked with other women. He carried on a passionate correspondence over the years with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a widow and actress, who got the starring role in Pygmalion. All the other actresses refused to say the taboo word 'bloody' that the playwright had put in the mouth of Eliza. It is said that the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had a great influence on Shaw's thinking. For a summer meeting of the Fabian Society in 1890, he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), in which he considered Ibsen a pioneer, "who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous." "To a professional critic (I have been one myself) theatre-going is the curse of Adam. The play is the evil he is paid to endure in the sweat of his brow; and the sooner it is over, the better." (from 'Preface' to Saint Joan) .

“Candida was a comedy about the wife of a clergyman, and what happens when a weak, young poet wants to rescue her from her dull family life. But it was not until John Bull's Other Island (1904) that Shaw gained in England a wider popularity with his own plays. In the Unites States and Germany Shaw's name was already well-known. Between 1904 and 1907 The Royal Court Theatre staged several of his plays, including Candida.

A charming Eliza played by Audrey Hepburn

MORELL: Man can climb to the highest summits; but he cannot dwell there.

MARCHBACKS (springing up): It's false: there can he dwell for ever, and there only. It's in the other moment that he can find no rest, no sense of the silent glory of life. Where would you have spent my moments, if not on the summits?

MORELL: In the scullery, slicing onions and filling lamps.
(from Candida)

Major Barbara depicted an officer of the Salvation Army, who learns from her father, a manufacturer of armaments, that money and power can be better weapons against evil than love.

PICKERING: Have you no morals, man?

DOOLITTLE: Can't afford them, Governor.
(from Pygmalion)

Pygmalion was originally written for the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Later the play became the basis for two films and a musical. (Shaw's correspondence with the actresses Ellen Terry and Stella Campbell are available in book form.) Shaw's popularity declined after his essay 'Common Sense About the War' (1914), which was considered unpatriotic. With Saint Joan (1924), his masterpiece, Shaw was again accepted by the post-war public. Now he was regarded as 'a second Shakespeare', who had revolutionised the British theatre. Shaw did not portray Joan of Arc, his protagonist, as a heroine or martyr, but as a stubborn young woman. And as in classic tragedies, her flaw is fatal and brings about her downfall. Uncommonly Shaw showed some sympathy to her judges. The play was written four years after Joan was declared a saint.

In his plays Shaw combined contemporary moral problems with ironic tone and paradoxes, "Shavian" wit, which have produced such phrases as "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches", "England and America are two countries divided by a common language", "Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it", and "I never resist temptation because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me." Discussion and intellectual acrobatics are the basis of his drama, and before the emergence of the sound film, his plays were nearly impossible to adapt into screen. During his long career, Shaw wrote over 50 plays. He continued to write them even in his 90s.

George Bernard Shaw died at Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, on November 2, 1950. He was cremated and it was his wish that his ashes be mixed with those of his wife, Charlotte - she had died seven years before, "an old woman bowed and crippled, furrowed and wrinkled," as Shaw depicted her in a letter to H.G. Wells...”

My fair lady
Well, that was a chunk taken from a biography. For me GB Shaw is best remembered in his play Pygmalion. Pygmalion was his answer to the class consciousness, rigidity and hypocrisy among the rich and powerful in urban London. If the play is one of his best works, then again the film 'My Fair Lady' is one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced. The film is based on Pygmalion and one would find it difficult to conclude which outshined which.

It was in Dhaka that we had the opportunity to see the film on the big screen. Rex Harrison played the role of Dr. Doolittle and Audrey Hepburn that of Eliza. Could anyone else depict the bouncy and sparkling character of an 'uncultured' Eliza better? Her transformation from a poor and rustic local girl with a loud and terrible accent to a soft spoken, 'cultured', urban lady kept the audience spellbound in the theatre halls. She easily stole the limelight by appearing in a party in an evening gown looking stunningly beautiful after Dr. Doolittle had finished working with her. Both Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn gave their best performance in this movie to make it one of the all time greats of Hollywood. This is a must see movie and Pygmalion is also a must read play. Both would make one wonder why things like such classic beauty are not produced anymore.

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