Friday, July 24, 2020

Shaw Symposium Online

Yesterday, the Shaw Summer Symposium kicked off online with a keynote address by Kimberley Rampersad, Associate Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We had hoped to be able to meet at the festival this summer, where a production of Bernard Shaw's play The Devil's Disciple was planned. Well, COVID put an end to that, but at least we are able to meet virtually.

This morning, Lawrence Switzky chaired a panel on Intercultural Shaw. R.A.F. Ajith spoke about Shaw and modern Tamil theatre. Tamil is one of the more ancient languages of the world, and has been spoken for about 5,000 years, Dr. Ajith said. Tamil drama underwent a drastic change in the 16th century, and then another significant change in the early 20th century, when Tamil productions of such Shaw plays as Pygmalion and Arms and the Man were staged in India. I was pleased to learn about some of the modern Tamil dramatists influenced by Shaw. These include C.N. Annadurai, known for his play Valakkari (The Maidservant), and M. Karunanidhi, known for Manimakudam (The Crown).

Next, Kay Li gave an excellent talk on the use of different colors in the marketing of The Devil's Disciple, both as a stage play and for the 1959 film. Richard Mansfield was the first actor to play Dick Dudgeon, the title role in The Devil's Disciple, but Kirk Douglas played him in the film. The biggest box-office draw at the time was Burt Lancaster, who played Rev. Anthony Anderson in the movie version. Lawrence Olivier, who played General Burgoyne, got the best reviews though, in spite of an all-star cast that also included Janette Scott as Judith Anderson. I was amused when Kay Li read from a 1922 letter in which Shaw advised casting a conventional melodramatic actor as Judith, since none of the truly good actors who had played the role had gotten it right!

We had a brief pause, and then resumed for a second panel, led off by Brigitte Bogar who spoke about operas based on The Devil's Disciple and other Shaw plays. Two of the earliest American operas to be based on Shaw are based on The Devil's Disciple, she said. A 1977 opera by Joyce Barthelson contained  some very tuneful arias the composer said were really "songs" rather than arias. A 1976 opera of the play was also staged, but little is known about it. One problem with adapting Shaw's work for opera is that there are so many words, many of which will have to be cut to make a successful opera. The short, comic plays seem to be the easiest ones to adapt.

I then gave a talk on Sarah Bernhardt's influence on Shaw. This was followed by John McInerney speaking about the characters in The Devil's Disciple, starting with Mrs. Dudgeon, then moving on to Judith, which is perhaps a more complex role than Shaw's 1922 letter might indicate. He proceeded to talk about Dick's questioning of why he decided to die in Anderson's place. He said that growing up, the only way Dick could express his individualism was to go against the puritanism of his mother.

Later, Dr. McInerney discussed General Burgoyne, who surrendered at Saratoga. This was an excellent introduction to Christopher Wixson's talk "Buoyant Burgoyne: Bernard Shaw, The Devil's Disciple, and No Manners Comedy." Wixon said Shaw admired the historical Burgoyne, and his character became a forerunner of such later Shaw characters as Julius Caesar and Andrew Undershaft. Burgoyne was himself a playwright, and his opera The Maid of the Oaks was quite successful. His later play The Heiress was a runaway success not just in London, but in Paris as well.

The conference continues tomorrow with a panel on Shaw and Gender, followed by a panel with noted Shavians Jesse Hellman, Jean Reynolds, and Sharon Klassen. There will also be a reading of Shaw's Buoyant Billions, adapted by Christopher Wixson. I'm looking forward to it!