George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was, of course, much more than a playwright. He had been in his earlier years a music critic and a drama critic, he was an essayist (writing impressive treatises on social, political, economic, and literary matters as prefaces to each of his plays), a philosopher, and a political agitator who often in his young manhood stood on a soapbox in Hyde Park and tried to propagate a philosophy called Fabian Socialism which is what the Labor Party of England came to stand for and to execute seventy-five years later.
Shaw wrote Misalliance in l909-l9l0, and it, of course, is more than an ordinary play. It is a continuation of some of the ideas on marriage that he expressed in l908 in his play, Getting Married. It was also a continuation of some of his other ideas on Socialism, physical fitness, the Life Force, and "The New Woman" i.e. women intent on escaping Victorian standards of helplessness, passivity, stuffy propriety, and non-involvement in politics or general affairs.
Shaw beat critics to the punch by subtitling his play A Debate in One Sitting, and in the program of its first presentation in l9l0 inserting this program note: "The debate takes place at the house of John Tarleton of Hindhead, Surrey, on May 3l, l909. As the debate is a long one, the curtain will be lowered twice. The audience is requested to excuse these interruptions, which are made solely for its convenience."
This may have ruffled Shaw's critics, but latter-day critics have not minded. Of the highly successful l953 production in New York, Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune described the play as a "wandering conversation-piece, but an unalloyed joy."
Misalliance is an ironic examination of the mating instincts of a varied group of people gathered at a wealthy man's country home on a summer weekend. Most of the romantic interest centers around the host's daughter, Hypatia, a typical Shaw heroine who exemplifies his life-long theory that in courtship women are the relentless pursuers and men the apprehensively pursued.
Though Hypatia is engaged to a young aristocrat as the play starts, and has even had a scandalous proposal from her intended's debonair father, she is restless. She acknowledges that her fiance is clever, and is the most interesting man she's had a choice of, but she is impatient with his having brains and little else to attract her. She longs for some adventure to drop out of the sky. And drop it does.
An airplane crashes through the conservatory bringing two unexpected guests. One is a handsome young man who immediately arouses Hypatia's hunting instinct. The other is a female dare-devil of a circus acrobat whose vitality and directness inflame all the other men at the house-party. It turns out that it is customary for her to rouse men wherever she goes, and in the second act she makes a note of having received her fifty-eighth proposal.
All told there are eight marriage proposals offered for consideration in the course of one summer afternoon. The question of whether any one of these combinations of marriage might be an auspicious alliance, or a misalliance, prompts one of the prospective husbands to make the famous Shavian speculation that has shocked many theatre-goers: "If marriages were made by putting all the men's names into one sack and the women's names into another, and having them taken out by a blind-folded child like lottery numbers, there would be just as high a percentage of happy marriages as we have now."