An encounter with George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell reminds me of what it might be like to feast on cotton candy and soda pop. The initial experience seems to be expectedly sparkling and frolicsome; but underneath there is an uneasy feeling that the outcome is not necessarily what you expected or wanted.
You Never Can Tell is Shaw’s first attempt at writing a play dedicated to achieving commercial success. In it he uses elements of traditional commedia dell’arte stock characters: the young lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, Pantaloon the crabbed father, and servants who sometimes play the fool, but speak words of wisdom, combined with elements of the “well-made play.” But if You Never Can Tell were simply a one-dimensional, high-spirited formal comedy of manners, it probably would not have been written by Shaw. We must begin peeling back the layers to understand why this play walks a knife edge between entertainment and social comment.
A brief look at events that shaped George Bernard Shaw provide insight into the layers of this work. Shaw was the product of an unhappy middle class union between his mother, an aspiring singer and music teacher, and his drunkard father. In his youth, George’s mother removed her daughters from the influence of their father, left Ireland, and moved to London to pursue her musical dreams. George lived with his father until the age of twenty when he joined his mother in London. Although George’s father was a wastrel, he instilled in George a keen sense of the ridiculous and an irreverent disregard for social convention.
In London, George joined many philosophical and intellectual organizations and was one of the first members of the Fabian Society which held strong Socialist sentiments. His attitude about women was complex. He embraced no romantic notions of love. As his renown grew, he enjoyed women’s flattery and conducted many flirtations, often pitting one woman against another. However, his Socialist leanings and own childhood experiences lent him sympathy for the battle for independence and equality for women. He was a great admirer of Ibsen and was inspired by his statements attacking society's idealization of the patriarchal standard. We see the feminist theme of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House echoed in You Never Can Tell played as formal high comedy rather than dramatic social comment. Shaw experienced feelings of ambiguity regarding this emerging feminism throughout his life. Intellectually, it made sense to him. However, he feared the power women would have if given the right to vote.
Thus, we see in You Never Can Tell a battle that pits intellect against emotion and feeling. It is a quick-witted battle of the sexes in which it is difficult to tell who “ensnares” whom. It is a delicately balanced play of the sadness of the human condition offered up as sparkling, formal comedy. In so doing, Shaw humanizes the experience by creating characters that are noble and fallible, foolish and wise, admirable and self-deprecating; in fact, very much like ourselves
The parallels to Shaw’s experiences are apparent. Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon is a high-minded woman. She is the mother who takes her children and escapes from the patriarchal (tyrannical) influence of her husband. She pursues her passion of rational thought, intellectual pursuit, and twentieth century treatises. She raises her children according to the scientific” method. Shaw writes her with humanity and dignity; yet, there is a poignancy about her inability to love anything passionately except her cause--even her own children.
Gloria, Mrs. Clandon’s beautiful daughter created in her own image, is the love interest of Valentine, a “five shilling dentist,” who is smitten at first site. Shaw’s ability to perceive the ridiculous even in himself is apparent in the self-satirization of Valentine’s character. His pursuit of Gloria is an irresistible concoction of charm, cunning, and romantic fencing. His feelings are no less sincere for being the umpteenth time he has fallen in love. He is a lighthearted master at the game, until he goes over the slippery side of the matrimony hill, which he greased himself We are left wondering, “Who set the trap here?” Gloria is no less sin-cere in her quest to follow in her moth-ers footsteps, but discovers chinks in her armor as she falls under attack from Valentine’s ardor.
Finch McComas, a fellow-radical from Mrs. Clandon’s youth now turned respectable, observes that today’s radicals become tomorrow’s old fogies, and cautions Mrs. Clandon that even though her children have been carefully raised in an “enlightened” manner, she should not hold too high hopes that they will carry on the cause. Mrs. Clandon’s “heir apparent,” Gloria, proves him right as she falls victim to Valentine’s scientifically formulated antidote for overcoming the education of the modern young woman.
Shaw uses the characters of Gloria’s slightly younger siblings, the twins Philip and Dolly, as his “childlike” voice. In the tradition of The Emperor’s New Clothes, Dolly and Phillip are the unspoiled voice of truth. Youthful, unmannered, often giddy and foolish characters, Shaw uses them to reveal insights into other characters by their guileless though often cheeky observa-tions. Valentine confides to the twins that he has been rejected soundly by Gloria. Phillip’s off handed response, “Never mind: you’d never have been able to call your soul your own if she’d married you,” is a foreshadowing of the kind of union Valentine is unwittingly pursuing.
But the heart of our dilemma as to why the resolution of this story makes us a little uneasy is in the title itself “Well, sir, you never can tell. That’s a principle in life with me, sir, if you’ll excuse my having such a thing sir. Yes, sir, you never can tell. There was my son sir! Who ever thought that he would rise to wear a silk gown sir? And yet today, sir, nothing less than fifty guineas, sir. What a lesson sir!”
This is spoken by William, a waiter at the hotel where Mrs. Clandon and her children are staying. William attempts to console Mr. Crampton, the unloved ex-husband and estranged father, after reuniting with his children after eighteen years’ separation, only to find they remain strangers. This seem-ing message of hope, “don’t despair, things may not seem as bad as they appear,” comes back to mock us as we witness a reunion of William and his own son, Mr. Bohun. William is so obviously intimidated by his sons blazing intellect and climb up the social ladder that he can hardly bear to be in the same room. And Mr. Bohun, so obviously impressed with his own intel-lect and rise on the social scale, barely tolerates his waiter father. You Never Can Tell becomes enigmatic. Is it a mes-sage of hope? “Don’t despair, things are probably better than they appear now”? Or, is the message, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it”? Or, is it merely G. B. Shaw toying with our inferior intellect, “Don’t take yourself too seriously”? You Never Can Tell.