Friday, September 15, 2023

Shaw Does His Bit

The summer issue of The Shavian includes an article by Michael Waters about performances of some of Bernard Shaw's World War I plays, including his hysterical one-act comedy Augustus Does His Bit.

Shaw had already publicly come out against the war (and was roundly condemned for it), but when the Anglo-Belgian actress Lalla Vandervelde appealed to him to write a play to raise funds for the people of Belgium, he obliged.

The resulting play, Augustus Does His Bit, was a send-up not of war, but of the bureaucracy that is the bane of every soldier. The play was produced in London in January of 1917 as the war was raging, and it poked fun at the incompetence that had led to so much pointless loss of life.

Critics took issue with the play, but apparently audiences loved it. The actor F.B.J. Sharp played the meticulously fussy Lord Augustus Highcastle while Vandervelde played the mysterious lady who shows up at his office to steal government secrets from right under his nose. Fortunately, everything turns out fine, but not before Augustus is made a fool of and the audience is thoroughly entertained.

After the war ended, there continued to be a smattering of performances. St. Paul's school in Coventry put the play on in 1922, as did Dundee Training College the following year. In 1924 the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead put the piece on, together with Shaw's one-act play The Man of Destiny which has a similarly absurd depiction of Napoleon. The critics were unimpressed, perhaps because the play's moment had passed and people no longer wanted to think about the war.

Today, though, Shaw's satire sparkles, and the play calls out for performance, as does another Shaw one-act play about the war, O'Flaherty VC.