G.B. AND “MRS. PAT”: For Shaw, the pen was the sword and he liked to sharpen it on actresses.
George Bernard Shaw liked to call Shakespeare “the other one.” At Gloucester Stage, Emily Dickinson is the other one. The company is staging two plays based on writers’ correspondence — Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar on the 40-year epistolary canoodling of Shaw and the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst on Dickinson’s “letter to the World/That never wrote to Me — ”. The two plays are being presented in repertory (through August 12), partly for their own stolid sakes and partly as vehicles for the performers: Broadway vets and GS favorites Paul O’Brien and Sandra Shipley, who make the Shavian flirtation of Dear Liar flounce and sing with all the drama inherent in “the well-known vegetarian” and his less-well-remembered muse, and Obie-winning, Oscar-nominated Lindsay Crouse, who in The Belle of Amherst has the unenviable task of slipping into Julie Harris’s shoes.
Kilty assembled Dear Liar in the late 1950s; it briefly hit Broadway in 1960 as a swan song for Katharine Cornell, who played it with Brian Aherne under Kilty’s direction. Since then it has made the rounds, sometimes starring Kilty as Shaw, but I have managed not to see it until now and found myself surprised at how lively O’Brien and Shipley, directed by David Zoffoli, make the self-dramatizing playwright and diva, turning their correspondence into less a static if grandiose Love Letters than a fluid play in which the characters seem, more often than not, to be speaking rather than writing to each other, living out rather than scratching out on paper their affaire de plume.
Of course, Shaw was more into romantic bloviation than sexual fulfillment; he had a long, satisfactory marriage that was apparently never consummated and also counted among his epistolary conquests Ellen Terry. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but for Shaw the pen was the sword and he liked to sharpen it on actresses. He and “Mrs. Pat” corresponded in florid bursts followed by some long and stony silences, one occasioned by a quarrel over whether the actress might with permission publish and tell. The play makes a dialogue of the letters, interweaving them with Kilty’s narration, which is put into the first person and related by the actors. Among other things, what emerges is a fascinating glimpse of the English theater world circa 1899–1939, during which time, in an A Star is Born arc, Shaw goes from music and drama critic establishing his dramaturgical legs to an eminence, while his imperious muse, whom he calls “a great enchantress,” sees her allure and career fade. At Gloucester Stage, the one constant onstage, besides O’Brien, Shipley, and an imposing heap of overlapping Oriental rugs, is a replication of the hatbox in which Mrs. Pat kept her cash-cow correspondence. When she died in France in 1940, it was spirited back to England just five days before the Germans took Paris.