Reading George Bernard Shaw's play Getting Married is not a very stimulating experience. The usual Shavian traits are there in oppressive abundance: endless talkiness, poor imitations of Oscar Wilde's drawing room wit, shallow philosophizing, and deplorably inept attempts at lyricism. The play is distinctly minor Shaw, and therefore very minor literature.
Seeing the play, however, is quite another matter, and nothing could better illustrate the power of acting and direction to transform a mediocre text than the stunningly brilliant production of Getting Married that opened last week at the Carter Centre Stage in Balboa Park. The apparently interminable conversations have become vivid and delightful; the wit suddenly seems wonderfully funny and draws constant laughter from the audience; the self-congratulatory iconoclasm and the jejune ideas about love, marriage, society and the self take on what appears to be real weight: and even the effusions about the eternal feminine and the life force acquire an emotional strength you would scarcely have expected them to have, from merely reading the text.
This metamorphosis is due chiefly to the superb realization of each of the characters as a total, living human being — the highest goal of the actor's art, but one too infrequently reached, even by the most famous names in the profession. When actress Gertrude Doolittle makes her entrance into the Edwardian living room that occupies the Carter's arena stage, and defends her celibacy with a cold and passionate self- possession, we lose all sense of her being an accomplished woman or'the theater and react to her as though she were now and had always been none other than "Lesbia, sister of Mrs. Bridgenorth," from the elegant black curl on her temple to the tensely imperious gestures of her aristocratic hands. When William Parker languorously reclines in the loveseat, or rakishly sticks out his tongue after delivering himself of some outrageously snobbish bit of repartee, he has become Shaw's St. John Hotchkiss to such an extent that we can only react with shocked disbelief when we read in the program that "in the field of dance, M r. Parker performs tap and jazz." It is like being told that Prince Albert takes out the garbage.
I single out Miss Doolittle and Mr. Parker only arbitrarily. There are twelve players in the cast, and not a weak one among them. The direction, by Craig Noel, could hardly be improved upon. Mr Noel has cannily exploited the arena stage, imparting to his actors a freedom and intimacy of movement and gesture that draws the audience thoroughly into the fictional world they are seated around. Every detail is attended to with the expertise of a master. I watched David Fennessey, the play's absurdly and pathetically earnest reluctant bridegroom, while John Ellswort ( as the Anglican Bishop who is the moral center of the play , made a little speech about marriage laws, ending with a nice flourish of episcopal wit; Mr. Fennessy's face exhibited in quick succession attention, interest, expectation, laughter, and the subsidence of laughter, all with such naturalness and in such perfect coordination with what the Bishop was saying that one would never believe he had in fact heard the same speech dozens of times before, in rehearsal. And all of this this constituted no more than a tiny, virtually superfluous detail in the action, for who (except for a technique-minded reviewer) would be looking at the ingenue while the eloquent Bishop was holding everyone's attention?
As to the play itself, it is all about marriage, as the title indicates: legal marriage, multiple marriages, and non-marriage. Shaw offers us various views on the stupid marriage laws and divorce pre-world-war-One England, along with the ever-old yet ever-new — and ever tedious — arguments for female liberation. In the second half of the play, considerably weaker than the first, the spirit of transcendental sexuality appears in the person of Mrs. George, the polyandrous mayoress (played with the perfect mixture of zest. vulgarity, pathos, and magnificence by Marie Moneen), and Shaw translates his social satire of male-female relations onto a higher — and rather more vacuous — plain. But we can easily ignore the ideas, never Shaw's strong point in spite of what he himself thought. What is wonderful about this production of Getting Married, is the sens we get of real, charming and preternaturally articulate people, whose comments about life are fascinating not in themselves but because they are the expressions of human beings we are interested in and have come to like and admire. It is this sense of a humanity basically good, kind, warm, and sometimes even wise that differentiates Shaw's play so radically from its next-door neighbor, Say Who You Are, which I reviewed here last week. It is now fashionable to portray people as nasty. selfish and sex-ridden; from the point of view of Say Who You Are, Shaw's tolerant and happily married Bishop is a mere Victorian fiction. But the newest fashions are not necessarily superior to those they have supplanted. The stupendous Edwardian costumes Peggy Kellner has designed for Getting Married are far truer to the Platonic Idea of beauty and elegance than anything anyone has worn for the past fifty years, and Shaw's people may very well be closer to the truth of human nature than the conventional cynicism that passes for wisdom in so much of the modern theater.