“Youth is wasted on the young.”
— George Bernard Shaw
Every state in the Union has a Shakespeare festival, including Idaho. While touring with a Commedia dell’arte piece called “The Three Buffoons,” I saw “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the first outdoor production of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s premiere season. The Idaho Shakespeare Company has grown since. This happens when any new Shakespeare festival starts, including the Utah Shakespeare Festival. In fact, any theater that gets support will grow with grants and the influx of actors, directors and set designers. Theater events enrich the cultural life of any city.
One of my fantasies has been to start a festival dedicated to the works of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Shaw, known for his famous “Shavian” wit, is the second most produced playwright on the stage where English is spoken. Shaw was a socialist writing about the evils of war, capitalism, poverty, gender inequality and animal experimentation for medical purposes. Though Shaw accused his contemporaries of “Bardolotry” because of their worship of Shakespeare, he never claimed to be a better playwright. Shaw’s witty language demands skilled actors but works magic on the stage.
With the exception of “The Doctor’s Dilemma” about the dangers of vaccination, Shaw’s themes remain relevant because the real evils Shaw described still exist. His most popular comedy, “Pygmalion,” became an even more popular musical, “My Fair Lady.” In that play, Shaw demonstrates how one’s lower class accent (in England, Cockney) could doom them to failure. A speech professor turns a Cockney flower girl into a proper lady with elegant speech, except at a race track when she uses profanity to urge on her horse. Shaw is the classic example of a satirist who disguises his bitter attacks with humor. John Bull’s “Other Island” is an assault on England’s brutal treatment of Ireland that had even members of the British royalty laughing at themselves. George Bernard Shaw’s wit has not lost its edge since “Widowers’ Houses” in 1892.
Shaw’s repartee was evident in his daily life. Winston Churchill despised Shaw and proved to be his equal. When Shaw gave Churchill two tickets for an opening night saying, “Bring a friend if you have one,” Churchill replied, “I want two tickets for the second night — if there is one.”
I have seen memorable productions of Shaw’s works: the complete “Man and Superman” (longer than a complete “Hamlet”), “Saint Joan”, “Misalliance,” “Major Barbara” and his anti-war comic drama, “Heartbreak House.” I directed Shaw’s one act, “Overruled,” an inspiration for Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” (I am happy to say “Overruled” was successful.) The Utah Shakespeare Festival recently did “Candida,” Shaw’s play about an intriguing threesome: Candida, her manly minister husband, James Morell, and a love-sick delicate poet named Eugene Marchbanks. (Shaw believed effeminate men were superior to macho men.) The play examines marriage in a unique and daring way. A young Marlon Brando played Marchbanks on Broadway in 1946.
Given George Bernard Shaw’s popularity, why are there no Shaw festivals in the United States? There is the Niagara-on-the-Lakes Shaw festival in Ontario, Canada, which has become an enduring commercial powerhouse, and now includes other playwrights, including Tennessee Williams. Last summer, the Montana Shakespeare In The Parks brought “You Never Can Tell” to Pocatello. Bernard Shaw’s plays are often revived, but the question remains: Why are there no Shaw festivals in America? Perhaps the Pocatello City Council and the Idaho Arts Commission might consider creating a Shaw Festival. It would be unique.
There are arguments against starting a theater festival. Money has to be raised and eventually, a new home for the theater must be found, but the Idaho Shakespeare organization raised money and found a permanent home. There is the argument that a semiprofessional theater troupe in Pocatello could compete with local theater, but I would suggest excellent theater sparks a hunger for more excellent theater, and the festival would occur in the summer. Bringing in at least two Equity actors would require a larger payroll but provide workshops for beginning actors and might inspire local talent. I feel it is important to expose local artists to outside professionals, and a collaboration between resident and visiting artists is desirable. Any festival, whether it’s a blues, jazz or a theater event, creates many jobs in addition to the performers. The patrons and tourists also have to eat and sleep somewhere, so a performing arts festival benefits the local economy.
It has been my experience working with storefront theaters and observing successful equity houses that if you build a solid theater company, the audience will come.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.