G.B.S. Tries to Avoid Charlotte’s Web

A century before the egomaniacal prevaricator took over the White House and tried to convince the world of his unique brilliance, there was an Irish intellectual who actually accomplished the things he set out to do and was not shy about acknowledging it. By the time he died in 1950 at the age of 94 he had written more than 60 plays, critiqued countless plays and musical events, produced a multitude of tracts and essays to express his Fabian Socialist opinions, and was an influential political activist in Britain. Although his political opinions changed over time and he was often considered controversial, he was always a man to be reckoned with. And he could spell.

That man was George Bernard Shaw.

In a new play, “Engaging Shaw,” playwright John Morogiello deals less with Shaw’s ideas, however, than with his fabled romances. Shaw (beautifully played by Grinnell Morris) pursued a great many women “until,” as he boasted, “they inevitably fall in love with me” and he politely sends them back to their husbands.

Since he apparently preferred the chase rather than the consummation, it was thought that his relationships remained platonic, except, perhaps, for his long connection with actress Ellen Terry, to whom he wrote romantic letters every day. He also developed a passionate relationship with actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell which resulted in another gigantic exchange of letters. Although playwright Morogiello does not include this second “affair” in his current dramedy, it is significant to note that Shaw wrote his beautiful “Pygmalion” expressly for her.

What Morogiello focuses on instead is the “true story” of Shaw’s “capture” by Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a 40-year-old virgin who was introduced to him by his close friend Sidney Webb, a noted economist, and Sidney’s wife Beatrice. (Warren Davis and Susan Priver are perfectly cast as an exemplary couple of early 20th century England) and Charlotte (Jennifer Lynn Davis) is unusual in that she, like Beatrice, is an ardent activist and a rambunctious feminist.

Charlotte, who is not overwhelmed by Shaw’s celebrity, treats him as an equal, an attitude which he hasn’t encountered in a woman before. She calls him “Bernie” and offers to help him with his work, and he is amused but amenable. And she confides to Beatrice, “No man can resist a woman once she sets her sights on him.”

Her plan is to become indispensable to him, which she can do, she says, because “I’m Irish!” Shaw is also Irish, but lives in England because he believes Ireland is worthwhile only “as long as she produces men who are wise enough to leave her.”

After they have worked together successfully for a while, the two become intimate enough to have a conversation about sex. He admits that he first had sex with a friend of his mother’s, but declares that “rejecting sex has made me strong!” Whereupon Charlotte asks him to have sex with her “right NOW!”

Shortly afterwards she realizes that she is in love with him and wants to be married, much to her surprise. “I’m a more conventional woman than I thought myself to be,” she says. But he will have none of it. “Eternity is what makes marriage unbearable,” he says, since “all emotions are temporary,” and he suggests that marriage should be undertaken on a one-year contract basis.

“Don’t play by his rules,” Beatrice advises her. “If he is your friend you must tell him everything that’s wrong with him.”

Later, when he tells Charlotte that he is sorry to have hurt her, feelings, she responds, “If you wish to torture me more, you’ll have to marry me first!” She accuses him of abdicating his responsibility to the life force, and tells him that she is “holding out for 10 minutes of quiet, not romance,” and reminds him that “Marriage is a social contract, not a sexual one.”

Like most of Shaw’s plays, this one by John Morogiello is a mixture of wit and humor wrapped around a serious message. Melanie MacQueen has directed her fine cast extremely well and they do justice to this semi-serious romp that is supposedly based on the “true story.” There is also a coincidental truth in the casting, as Grinnell Morris, who plays the opinionated Shaw with expansive ego and charm, is actually the doppelganger of the young Shaw. He looks amazingly like him.

“Engaging Shaw” will engage its audience Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through April 15 at Theatre 40, 241 South Moreno Drive, in Beverly Hills. Theatre 40 is a professional theater company based at Beverly Hills High School. For tickets, call (310) 364-0535 or online at www.theatre40.org.