Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Mad, Witty, Terrible Weekend at Clouds Hill

There’s a play I want to see which hasn’t been written.  Scary words.  The last time I wrote a sentence like that - well I’m still adventuring through the consequences of that statement.  Nevertheless, there is a play I badly want to see which hasn’t been written.

Just over a week ago we had the great good fortune to see the NTLive broadcast of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman with Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes directed by Simon Godwin.  It’s my favorite Shaw play, I consider it his best, and I’ve only seen it performed once before, (an exquisite production years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)  It’s rarely staged in it’s entirely both because of its length and, more importantly, the immense technical challenge it poses for the actors.  If King Lear is an Everest, Man and Superman is a K2.


Then, there were the terrorist attacks in Tunisia and France this week.  The personal tragedies of the victims and the sorrow and uncertainty their families are enduring brought me back to the immediacy of what has been an historical week in so many ways.  When I ruminate about the Middle East, I always come back to T. E. Lawrence who accomplished his ambition to make history and chronicle it and thence foresaw the anguish the region would endure.  I would argue that Seven Pillars of Wisdom generally, but accurately prophesied the future of the region up through the 1990s.  I wonder what he would make of it now.

Shaw and Lawrence knew each other in the 1920s.  Lawrence was in his early thirties, wrestling with the legacy of historical achievement and his wild, brilliant lion of a memoir, grieving over fundamental issues like style and length.  Shaw was in his sixties, lionized, married to a woman who was also a formidable literary companion and feminist activist, Charlotte Payne-Townsend.

Jeremy Wilson, in his seminal biography of Lawrence, writes of his state of mind at the time,

                …The romantic Victorian concepts that he had so willingly adopted in his youth were one by one falling away.  His evangelical Christianity had faded before the war; at Uxbridge he had written: ‘Hungry time has taken from me year by year more of the Creed’s clauses, till now only the first four words remain.  Them I say defiantly, hoping that reason may be stung into new activity when it hears there’s yet a part of me which escapes its rule.’  The vision of the ‘noble savage,’ which had been a guiding principle during his Carchemish years, had crumbled during the Arab Revolt…He had abandoned one of the fundamental tenets of his Victorian upbringing:  belief in the progress of mankind, and now he had concluded that romantic love, a concept he had been brought up to revere, was nothing more than animal lust.

In contrast, consider the implicit optimism in this short excerpt from Man and Superman in which Jack Tanner is trying to discover the fundamental principles of male and female psychology,

                …the artist’s work is to show us ourselves as we really are.  Our minds are nothing but this knowledge of ourselves; and he who adds a jot to such knowledge creates new mind as surely as any woman creates new men.

Lawrence was imprisoned by experience and values in a dark world view, whereas, Shaw, against such odds, was working to discover and define an optimistic vision of human purpose.

And that is the play I want to see:  a portrayal of one of their weekends together at Lawrence’s cottage at Clouds  Hill.  The play is not simple, nor is everyone whom they first appear to be.  After all, it was Shaw’s terrible and self-serving guidance to Lawrence about the publication of Seven Pillars that forced Lawrence to remain in the military when he might have found a more rewarding and optimistic life outside.

The challenge is immense.  Imagine trying to channel and imagine new Shavian wit and Lawrence’s erudition while making it dramatically compelling.  How about giving it a go Peter Morgan?

No comments: