By Brian Best
In the preface to his famous biography George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century, Archibald Henderson tells how he began "the greatest intellectual venture and spiritual adventure" of his life. On February 24, 1903, a friend invited him to attend a performance of You Never Can Tell, by a dramatist he had never heard of. Reluctantly, he went—and was quickly converted. "I sat through that performance," he recalls, being moved to "gales of laughter, feeling as if I were being subjected to some sort of mental electrification." In consequence, he spent much of the next fifty years writing and updating his biographies of Bernard Shaw—endeavoring "to record and appraise this great life" (New York, Appleton-Century Crofis, 1956, xiii, xiv).
If You Never Can Tell could have such an effect on one (initially skeptical) viewer, the play must have something going for it. Yet it was a troublesome play for Shaw. Though it was mostly written between April and July of 1895, on 8 July a letter to Janet Achurch lamented, "the new play is not coming." Nearly a year later (10 June 1896) another letter pronounced the play only just finished." To Ellen Terry on 5 July 1896, Shaw commented wryly, "I have finished a new play, of such extraordinary cleverness that an eminent London manager . . . writes, after reading it, 'When I got to the end, I had no more idea what you meant by it than a tom cat."' On 8 September 1896, the play finally had a name—You Never Can Tell—and another letter informed Ellen Terry that "Harrison, Cyril Maude & Co. . . . appear to be making up their minds to ruin themselves with it." On 7 May 1897, with the play several months into rehearsal and the scenery . . . in hand," Shaw confided to a fellow critic, Golding Bright, that "two of the leading parts proved too much for the resources of the Haymarket"--that "the lady could not possibly have got through without strong support from the gentleman; and the gentleman . . . was hopelessly beaten by his part." The play was withdrawn, and Shaw feared that it was "not likely to be seen until it [was] published" (Dan H. Laurence, ed., Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1874-1897 [London; Max Reinhardt, 1965]).
The play was finally performed at the Strand Theatre in London in 1899, but Shaw withdrew it after the six mandatory matinees. On 12 June 1900, he wrote to Mrs. Mansfield in New York that she "would find the play difficult to cast." Why? "Not that the parts are hard to fit separately," Shaw explained, "but when you have got a capital Dolly and an excellent Mrs. Clandon, you find that they are not a bit like mother and daughter. The Clandon family is the difficulty." The Mansfields decided not to do the play (Henderson 448).
Shaw's comment about the "Clandon family" is instructive. Even though the play seems much like other domestic farcical comedies—with a dominating mother, mischievous children, a clever waiter, two young lovers falling in and out of love, etc.—in fact, the play is only superficially conventional. The Clandon family really is a family. The mother is more than a type; she is also a caring and sensitively distinct individual with a history, an occupation, a philosophy, and her own believable psychology. The twins, Phil and Dolly, if mischievous at all, are so in atypical, unexpected ways. They are unique and complex, the product of their personal responses to Mrs. Clandon's rational, progressive philosophy. Gloria, the elder daughter, seems at first largely a mirror of her mother; yet she is the stronger of the two women, and her overt rationalistic rejection of sentimentality is complicated by a covert passion, which her mother lacks. Gloria is also her father's daughter and embodies some of the same traits that resulted in the breakup of her parents' marriage eighteen years previously. Consequently, any successful production of the play has to create not only believable and effective characters, but characters that fit properly within the peculiar milieu of this genuinely interconnected family.
In addition, the family, and most of the other characters, are wonderfully articulate, witty, intellectual—and intellectually self-aware. They instantly detect slight nuances of speech and attitude in themselves as well as in others, and much of the delight the audience experiences results from the interplay of this rapid intellectual awareness within and between characters and from resultant swings of emotional current. At the same time, the characters have their pet illusions challenged at every turn and suffer the painful process of changing their minds—experiencing a kind of "conversion" to a truer vision of themselves. With all this going on in the play, Henderson's term, "mental electrification," conveys just about perfectly what happens in performance when the cast is sufficiently expert and the audience is sufficiently alert and responsive.
The problem Shaw faced in 1897 was that both the actors and the audiences available for his plays were largely products of the conventional theatre of the time and found it extraordinarily difficult to perform or experience at the level Shaw's plays demanded. They were used to type-cast, "well-made" plays, in which the humor depended almost wholly on ludicrous situations into which the characters were manipulated by various kinds of accidents and other stage trickery.
As a drama critic during the nineties Shaw frequently pointed out the triviality and conventionality of many popular playwrights and their plays. For instance, he accused one dramatist of creating an "ordinary play" with "an air of" novelty and of being a "character actor," which means being "a clever stage performer who cannot act, and therefore makes an elaborate study of the disguises and stage tricks by which acting can be grotesquely simulated" (Shaw, Our Theatres in the Nineties [London; Constable, 1932], 1:60). He said of The Girl I Left Behind Me: "It's fun runs too much on the underclothing of the ladies" and "the characters, instead of being consistent and typical, are patched and rickety" (95). He called Delia Harding "the worst play I ever saw," explaining that the author's "plan of playwriting is first to invent the action of his piece, and then to carefully keep it off the stage and have it announced merely by letters and telegrams" (97).
When Shaw complicated his characters by adding realistic human individualities and motives, complicated their relationships by having them function within a framework of social issues and genuine ideas, and in addition challenged beliefs and values held by typical British playgoers. he was breaking new ground and stretching both actors and audiences in ways they had not been stretched before.
His own comment on plays that he wrote in the nineties sums up well the difficulties he knew he was creating for conventional actors and audiences: "I have not hesitated on occasion to tax [the average playgoer's] intelligence very severely, making the stage effect depend not only on nuances of execution quite beyond the average skill produced by the routine of the English stage in its present condition, but on a perfectly sincere and straightforward conception of states of mind which still seem cynically perverse to most people, and on a good humoredly contemptuous . . . attitude towards ethical conventions which seem to them validly heroic or venerable" (732).
Shaw's challenge, of course, was to keep writing highly entertaining plays that would gradually force the quality of drama, actors, and audiences up to his own demanding level. That he succeeded—and more quickly than even he dared to hope—is demonstrated by his success at the new Vedrenne-Barker Independent Theatre, which between 1903 and 1907 produced eleven of his plays. Of the 988 performances which occurred during those years, Shaw's plays accounted for 701. You Never Can Tell was one of the three most popular (Michael Holdroyd, Bernard Show, Volume II, 1898-1918, The Pursuit of Power [New York; Random House, 1989], 173).
More than any other playwright, Shaw, with scintillating plays such as You Never Can Tell and with intelligent, hard-hitting dramatic criticism, effectively challenged conventional dramatic expectations and propelled British theatre into the twentieth century.