Which elements combined to make up the reputation of George Bernard Shaw as one of the greatest English-language playwrights?
Ethan McSweeny was on a short dinner break, so we decided to keep our conversation focused. I asked him to name five things he admires about George Bernard Shaw. McSweeny is directing the Guthrie's production of "Arms and the Man," which opened Friday on the proscenium stage. Shaw's romantic comedy uses the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War as catalyst to poke into the notions of courage, self-preservation and the morality of war. At times a broad laugher, the piece also requires attention to Shaw's deeper themes.
Sitting down at Sea Change, McSweeny noted this is his third Shaw production -- and the second for "Arms and the Man," having directed a grad-school production at NYU. His Guthrie cast includes Peter Michael Goetz, Kate Eifrig, Jim Lichtscheidl, J.C. Cutler and Mariko Nakasone. McSweeny has been a frequent visitor to the Guthrie ("Six Degrees of Separation," "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Body of Water" among his credits) but has not done a Shaw here.
So, onto the observations:
1) Wit. Before the avocado and salmon salad arrived, McSweeny had his first favorite Shaw characteristic. "One of the first things you hear about is the Shavian wit. He's so damn smart and you just enjoy the company of his mind. He didn't write plays until he was 40, and he wanted to reach people with ideas about reforming society. He regarded theater as the best way to reach the most minds -- the quickest -- and I wonder if today he would have written for TV, like Aaron Sorkin or Jon Stewart -- a political bent but really entertaining."
2) Prescience. McSweeny was commenting on the contemporary meaning of "Arms and the Man" when this point popped up. "He understood the military-industrial complex 50 years before Eisenhower talked about it. When he was writing 'Arms and the Man' in the 1890s, he understood war is hell and industrialization was going to make it worse. He anticipates the experience of World War I and no one was really doing that. This was the height of the British Empire, and the idea that war was not the thing to do would have been shocking. In our time and place, right now, with our armies in the field, we should be thinking of that experience."
3) Intellect. As the grilled opah arrived, McSweeny was on a jag about Shaw and Oscar Wilde, both Irish ex-pats writing in London at about the same time. "They are very different temperaments. I love Wilde but he stays in the confectionery element. Shaw is about discussion, where ideas matter and he works out that tension -- his problems -- in his dialogue. The argument is within himself and he fights for both sides equally, which shows how broad and honest his intellect is. 'Arms and the Man' is an early piece and that's not completely established yet, but he has the ideas out there."
4) Showmanship. Wilde was still animating the conversation and McSweeny surmised "although I have no way of proving it, I think Shaw might have gone to see Wilde's plays and then he tried to 'out- Wilde' Wilde. He's watertight as a comedian. 'Arms and the Man' has this spirit of whimsy and broad comedy. I hope this production straddles that line of broad comedy and the serious stuff. Shaw was a pragmatist. He wanted to know what was happening at the box office. Theater should say something because it's too hard to do, to not be saying something."
5) Romance. Dinner complete and a dessert menu sitting in front of him, McSweeny talked about Shaw's optimism and his heart. "He writes the best women characters. He has real issues, but you can read in every line his adoration for them. He loves all his characters, loves their flaws, but he is very clear-eyed about them. In this play, Sergius in Act Three shows he's capable of change, which in Shaw's mind makes him a winner. I think Shaw was very much a romantic and an optimist. Anyone who believes he can change the world -- and in his lifetime he must have had grievous disappointment -- has to be an optimist. Life is getting better, inexorably, but incrementally."
Now all McSweeny needs to do is make sure all these themes emerge in his production. If nothing else, it gives him and us something to think about.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299