Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Getting Married

On May 12, 1908, Bernard Shaw premiered a new play called Getting Married at the Haymarket Theatre in London.

Shaw subtitled the piece "A Disquisitory Play" which means it relates to a disquisition. Okay, so what the heck is a disquisition? A legal term borrowed from Norman French, a disquisition is an inquiry. Appropriately enough, the play inquires into the state of marriage and how it can be reformed.

Recently, Justine Zapin had an article in the journal Shaw comparing Getting Married to Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. On the surface, at least, the two plays could not be more different. Ghosts is a painful tragedy, while Shaw's comedy sparkles and bubbles without ever feeling terribly serious. However, both pieces look back to classical drama. Ghosts reworks the Oresteia of Aeschylus, while Shaw stated in a note with the published text that "the Greek form" of unified action "is inevitable" in a play like Getting Married where "drama reaches a certain point in poetic and intellectual evolution."

Shaw's play is closer to the work of Aristophanes than that of Aeschylus, as it focuses on the happy idea that two young people might find out right before their wedding how unjust England's marriage laws are and refuse to go through with the ceremony. Just as Aristophanes often provides plucky female characters, Getting Married presents the audience with a number of women willing to challenge conventional ideas. Zapin's article focuses on three: Lesbia Grantham, Mrs. George Collins, and Edith Bridgenorth.

Lesbia, as her name might suggest, rejects men entirely and embraces spinsterhood rather than marriage. Mrs. George (as she is refereed to in the play) is a different matter. A powerful mayoress who also has humble roots in the tradesman class, she maneuvers to solve everyone's marital difficulties. When her practical-mindedness fails to untie the Gordian knot of modern marriage, however, she enters a trance-like state and begins to prophesize like a pythoness from ancient Greece:

When I opened the gates of paradise, were you blind? was it nothing to you? when all the stars sang in your ears and all the winds swept you into the heart of heaven, were you deaf? were you dull? was I no more to you than a bone to a dog? Was it not enough? We spent eternity together; and you ask me for a little lifetime more. We possessed all the universe together; and you ask me to give you my scanty wages as well. I have given you the greatest of all things; and you ask me to give you little things. I gave you your own soul: you ask me for my body as a plaything. Was it not enough? Was it not enough?

There is seemingly no answer to Mrs. George's question, yet to adopt the attitude of Lesbia will lead only to barrenness. It is up to Edith Bridgenorth to work out a compromise between the imperfect state of marriage in our society and the unattainable ideals marriage claims for us. Zapin interprets Edith's surname as indicating that she is literally a bridge to the future.

The play was not a success when it was originally staged, but it later made its Broadway debut at the Booth Theatre in 1916, running for 112 performances.