In her 1972 book The Shavian Playground, Margery Morgan argued that coded into this light-hearted comedy was the story of Shaw’s own dysfunctional family. In 1875, singer and voice teacher Bessie Shaw, the formidable mother of GBS, left her alcoholic husband George Carr Shaw in Dublin and settled in London, taking her two daughters with her, GBS following on a year later. In the ten years between their departure for England and George Carr’s death, none of the family ever met up with the father again; there was for the Shaws to be no reunion comparable to that of the Crampton/Clandons in the play. So You Never Can Tell may have been Shaw’s comic exorcism of his painful past. Or, as he himself put it, looking back at his childhood many years later, ‘If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance’.
If we are looking for autobiographical feeling in the play, it may be there also in Valentine, the susceptible romantic lead, who is at once attracted to the idea of marriage and yet scared of it. The young Shaw, like Valentine, had extended flirtatious relationships with many women without committing to any of them. But at just the time he was writing You Never Can Tell (1895-6) he met Charlotte Payne-Townshend, his ‘Irish millionairess’ from Rosscarberry, County Cork, whom he would finally marry in 1898. Charlotte would take charge of their lives together, as Gloria Clandon looks likely to take charge of Valentine. And it was Charlotte, always more patriotically Irish than her husband, who insisted she and Shaw return to Ireland on a holiday visit in 1905, Shaw’s first in 29 years.
Ireland was unfinished business for Shaw, as is evident in John Bull’s Other Island, written in 1904, the year before that long-deferred return home. Larry Doyle, the Irish emigré who has been away from Ireland for 18 years, seems to speak for his creator. When faced with the prospect of going back to his home town with his English business partner Broadbent, he declares: ‘I have an instinct against going back to Ireland: an instinct so strong that I’d rather go with you to the South Pole than to Rosscullen’. However, the 1905 visit seems to have broken the spell, and became the first of many extended summer holidays in Ireland, culminating in the last in 1923, when Saint Joan was completed written in a green tent in the grounds of Parknasilla Hotel. (Shaw always liked to write outdoors whenever possible.)
John Bull’s Other Island, offered to the Abbey Theatre, in fact might have been the opening production of the theatre in December 1904, but it proved well beyond the resources of the company at that time. However, the friendship that developed between Shaw and Lady Gregory in 1909, when the Abbey Theatre staged The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, which had been banned in England, made him a friend and ally of the theatre. A Shaw season in 1916-17 provided the basis for a continuing repertory of his plays at the Abbey Theatre. John Bull’s Other Island, turned down in 1904, became an Abbey hardy perennial, revived all but annually for some fifteen years. The difficulty in casting Broadbent, one of the original stumbling-blocks, was triumphantly solved by Barry Fitzgerald who gave a bravura performance as the stage Englishman. Through the decade of the 1920s, no playwright except O’Casey was more often staged in the Abbey Theatre.
It was Barry Fitzgerald, again, who was cast as the Waiter when the Abbey Theatre mounted You Never Can Tell for the first time in 1933, and Cyril Cusack who played the part in the 1978 revival directed by Patrick Mason. Now, in the twenty-first century, it is amusing to hear of Mrs Clandon’s series of Twentieth Century Treatises, advancing her ‘advanced’ views. However, we can certainly not afford to regard them complacently as dated. Still more than a century on, looking back at the twentieth century, as she looked forward to it, many of her themes are still live issues: the equality of the sexes; patriarchal domination in the family; domestic abuse.
As an advocate of avant-garde theatre, with a backlist of unproduced plays by the mid 1890s, Shaw sought in You Never Can Tell to produce a popular comedy of a recognisable sort. In his Preface to his Plays Pleasant, he identifes the formula: ‘fun, fashionable dresses, a little music, and even an exhibition of eating and drinking by people with an expensive air, attended by an if-possible-comic waiter’. But Shaw being Shaw, he transforms that formulaic comedy into something quite different. The ‘if-possible-comic waiter’ is turned into the magnificent bravura role of William, the supernumerary designed to steal the show. We do eventually get on to the fashionable dresses and the onstage eating and drinking, but the action opens in the improbably uncomic setting of a dentist’s surgery with a patient recovering from an extraction. In the elegant dance of witty banter, courtship and improbable coincidences, there is yet a surprising sympathy for the bitterness of marital breakdown. And as the dance moves to its expected comic finale, it takes on a Lughnasa-like energy of carnival.
It is the bubbly gaiety of You Never Can Tell that you taste most immediately. But the shot of spirits is there too. This is an Irish whiskey and soda as only Bernard Shaw knew how to mix it.
Nicholas Grene is an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent book is Home on the Stage: Domestic Spaces in Modern Drama (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
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