Friday, June 9, 2023

Shaw Conference at William and Mary

Today was the opening day of the International Shaw Society's conference on "Shaw and Heroism" at the College of William and Mary.

I made the mistake this morning of going to the Wren building for the opening, not realizing that this historic site was just being used for performances. The regular sessions are in Miller Hall. Fortunately, I got there in time to hear a keynote address by Peter Gahan.

Peter spoke on Shaw's heroes and their predicaments. Since we are meeting in the colonial city of Williamsburg, he noted that Shaw's Three Plays for Puritans all take place in colonies. Conforming to Shaw's ideas about Puritanism, these plays portray sex not as the main action of the play, but not non-existent, either.

Caesar and Cleopatra
, which takes place in Roman-occupied Egypt, is a construction not just of different historical accounts, but also of different theatrical depictions of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, Peter said. William Shakespeare's plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are models, but Peter also pointed out later versions of the story that Shaw likely knew, including John Fletcher's The False One, Pierre Corneille's The Death of Pompey, and Colley Cibber's Caesar in Egypt.

The other plays in Three Plays for Puritans are The Devil's Disciple, which takes place in New England during the American Revolution, and Captain Brassbound's Conversion, which takes place in Morocco. Captain Brassbound's name comes from a fragment of a poem by Percy Shelley that Mary Shelley attached to the preface of The Witch of Atlas, which runs in part: "And, when / I went among my kind, with triple brass / Of calm endurance my weak breast I armed, / To bear scorn, fear, and hate--a woful mass!" Peter had some nice insights into Brassbound's character.

We had a long break before our next speaker, Bernard Dukore, who used to run the theatre program at CUNY Graduate Center, though before my time. Bernie talked about how Shaw considers ideals to be masks for the truth, and he applied this to Arms and the Man as well as other plays. When it opened in 1894, Arms and the Man was so unconventional that the Prince of Wales walked out of it, he said! A 1932 film version showed the battle that takes place offstage in the play, but the film was later shortened, and that sequence cut. Shaw wrote his own screenplay for Arms and the Man in 1941, with the American star Ginger Rogers to play the leading role of Raina, but Rogers decided she wanted to play Luka, and the production never happened.

Bernie also discussed Shaw's never-shot screenplay for Saint Joan. That screenplay showed battle scenes as well, including a cannon shattering a tower and a bridge being destroyed by fire and gunpowder. In the afternoon, we got to see a staged reading of a cut version of Saint Joan, and this evening we saw a workshopped version of a new musical called MADam Lucy Deceased by William Schermerhorn and Elise Morris. (The show will be performed for the public on Sunday.) McKenna Grantier, who played the Earl of Warwick in Saint Joan, took on the role of Lucy Ludwell Paradise, a famous hostess of the eighteenth century who was ultimately committed to a madhouse. Her ghost is said to still haunt Williamsburg.

I didn't hear Madam Lucy's ghost last night, but I've got a few more days to spend in Williamsburg. Tomorrow I'm presenting on Sybil Thorndike's portrayal of Joan of Arc in Saint Joan, and on Sunday Mary Christian is scheduled to speak.

I'm looking forward to it!