Reviewing a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Bernard Shaw wrote: “It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it.” Obviously, Shaw does not deal just in amusement.
Still, nearly everyone has heard that Shaw’s comedies are brilliant, witty, and outrageous; and this is true. It is also true that audiences and directors and actors as well were slow to grasp the nature of Shaw’s comedy. They were used to mindless nineteenth-century farces and melodramas with stock characters playing typical roles in traditional ways; and Shaw haunted rehearsals of his plays for years trying to make clear the new conceptions of drama and of acting that his plays required.
Like most of Shaw’s comedies, Misalliance is difficult to describe. It is a wonderful play. Audiences love it and rejoice in its marvelous comedy. Yet the plot and Misalliance uses up a lot of plot is scarcely more than a gorgeous farce which brings together a group of highly opinionated, articulate people who then proceed to talk. And that, of course, is the key. The talk is the true drama. The interplay of ideas is Shaw’s dramatic conflict. And the ideas are so provocative and honest and the characters so delightfully energetic in asserting their opinions that comedy results.
The play is a continuous, witty, delightful, ever-varying discussion, or debate, about many things all the way from women’s rights and socialism to prayer and Bible reading but mostly about difficulties in the relationships of parents and children. Of course there are enticements to get us to listen to the discussion. An attractive, vigorous young woman is shopping for a husband and longing for excitement. She is bored by all the talk her elders and her very conventional brother subject her to. She wants to be an “active verb”; she wants something unusual to drop out of the sky and it does. An airplane crashes into the greenhouse, bringing her an intelligent Adonis and bringing all the men an amazing, enticing female Polish acrobat. Before long, multiple romancing is underway (interrupted briefly by an attempted murder), and all the while the characters, including now the would-be murderer, talk about many things, provoking one another exceedingly as they do so, and provoking and challenging us as well.
Part of our challenge is to discover Shaw’s own perspective. Since no single character is his mouthpiece, we must listen actively and weigh intelligently the claims of the various voices. Yet Shaw does have strong opinions, and if we want to know for sure what they are, we can read his preface entitled “Parents and Children,” which is only slightly longer than the play itself and in which he discusses all the issues the play raises and a good many it doesn’t. Shaw is always willing to explain himself.
As he readily admits, he is a preacher and a world-betterer, and the theatre is his pulpit. The gospel of St. George Bernard Shaw, fundamentally, is “think, ponder, and repent of your sacred stupidities if you want this absurd world ever to become a fit place for human habitation.” Surely, there are few provocative preachments more delightful than Misalliance. We leave the theatre not fearing eternal damnation for our sins, but feeling the embarrassment of having our conventional wisdom thoroughly laughed at.