“give me the drunken, stagey, brass-bowelled barnstormers…”

On directing the plays of George Bernard Shaw – Heartbreak House, Misalliance, Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Too True To Be Good or “give me the drunken, stagey, brass-bowelled barnstormers my plays were written for!”   Essay by Rosey Hay, Director.

Shaw’s work is absolutely unique in his use of language and the need for rhetorical skills.  Directing Shaw’s plays with young actors (students at the Juilliard School, the University of Scranton and the Graduate Acting Program at NYU) is a challenging and rewarding experience that is like no other. Rhetorical drama – wit, irony and argument, passionate declamation – presents challenges that actors in contemporary plays rarely encounter.  I am passionate about Shaw’s work and love the demands that he places on both director and actors.

Shaw himself said: “My plays require a special technique of acting, and in particular, great virtuosity in sudden transitions of mood (that seem to the ordinary actor to be transitions from one “line” of character to another”).  He demands expansiveness of thought and acting, great technical proficiency (clarity, lightness and ease of speech, listening and thinking energy) that is reflected in the pace and intellectual passion, as well as moment-to-moment reality.

Shaw’s “Drama of Ideas” is the cornerstone of my work with actors in a Shaw play – I call this the ‘passions of the mind’ whereby complex characters express themselves always with bravura, fearlessness, confidence and assurance.  It is this very intensity of expression that is the initial challenge to young people in the 21st century.  The characters that they portray – whether it be Andrew Undershaft or Captain Shotover or The Burglar) are all, without exception, characters with conscious self-knowledge and a delight in the power of expression.

The action of Shaw’s plays always centres around lengthy, complex, passionate debates.  The whirl of the on-stage debate is exciting, thrilling and invigorating, making the audience think and encounter new ideas that are sometimes outrageous – that poverty “is a crime…the worst of crimes” says Undershaft.  The ideas and how those ideas transform characters are what create the drama.  Barbara is transformed through the course of Major Barbara by the force and passion of the ideas put forth by her father.

Shaw asks his actors to embrace the extraordinarily heightened language of his plays, to express his complex ideas with energy and virtuosity, through a passionate exchange of ideas that fully engage both the heart and the intellect.  As Shaw himself said: “every line has a bullet in it and comes with an explosion”.  Actors must move beyond the demands of naturalism, and to find both inner truth with sustaining complex structures of language and ideas.

This complex web of passionate ideas has three characteristics which we identify as we read the plays around the table in the early days of rehearsal.  The first and most important is what Shaw himself identified as “ceaseless point-making” – the confrontation and exploration of argument, contradiction and surprise.  Secondly, the shifts into more formal and poetic styles that Shaw writes into his plays; and thirdly, his “set pieces” – declamations of a climactic event or argument – for instance, the great set piece in Act 2 of Major Barbara between Undershaft and

Cusins contains all of the very best Shavian characteristics: passionate debate and intellectual stimulation expressed through explosive, onomatopoeic and sparkling language that crackles with dynamic energy.

How then to help actors develop into the “drunken barnstormers” so beloved of Shaw?  The first step is to open the actors’ eyes as to how Shaw writes, and how to approach the particular text.

“There are so many words!” is a common response early in the process.  The primacy of language is often daunting to actors, student or otherwise, but with guidance the actors can learn to deal with complicated structures of poetry and argument.

Shaw’s dialogue is so precise in its architecture that it needs to be examined thoroughly, thought by thought to see how the ideas build and develop.  I am rigorous in making sure that each and every piece of punctuation is followed, as the structure of the thoughts is often complicated and dense.  Each idea has its place in the speech or scene and the ideas must be explored fully and with great precision and a relishing of the ideas themselves.  The long thoughts that Shaw often gives his characters require actors to work with great pace, drive, clarity and energy – these are the basic foundation stones that actors need in order to release the power of Shaw’s texts.

It is a fascinating process to help actors discover how Shaw writes – that his works are essentially operatic in terms of vocal balance (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and in the composition and structure of dialogue and scenes:  the passages of recitative, the arias (Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House) and duets (Hesione and Ellie in Heartbreak House; Joey and Hypatia in Misalliance: Cusins and Barbara in Major Barbara to mention three out of hundreds) and trios, (Eliza, Higgins and Pickering in Pygmalion; Randall, Hector and Lady Utterword in one of the greatest trios – in Heartbreak House) as well as ensemble finales and the bravura pieces (Lina Sczepanowska in Misalliance, The Burglar at the end of Too True To be Good).  Not only do the actors need to fully explore and understand this aspect of his work but also learn to discover how Shaw ‘scores’ his plays – the sudden contrasts of key, tone and tempo that are all elements of the formal structure of the plays.

It is therefore crucial that actors understand fully that Shaw’s verbal music is part of the very fabric of his plays, and this music does indeed express feeling and emotion that goes beyond what words can convey.  This attention to the structure and operatic scale begins the process of actors reaching beyond more naturalistic approaches to dramatic texts.

Going deeper into the examination of “word music” we explore how Shaw achieved his total effects through two and three distinct melody lines carried by three distinct voices playing against each other, plus the ideas and emotions also playing against each other.  These are the vocal, intellectual and musicallines that the audience needs to hear.

The actors also learn to discover how Shaw structured his scenes – not in the more usual form of a verbal tennis match, with the lead shifting from line to line, but rather a character retains the lead through a repeated pattern of speeches before losing the lead to someone else.  This particular way of structuring scenes is clearly at work in the Cusins/Undershaft scene in Act Two of Major Barbara, where Undershaft’s forceful ideas and point of view come to dominate Cusins, so that in the final moments of the confrontation, Undershaft’s words and thoughts rise inexorably over Cusins’ one-word responses in wave after wave of power and force.

Twentieth century critic Daniel Leary in Shaw’s Plays in Performance writes:  He was attempting to confront his spectators with glimpses of reality…question their professions of belief.  He did it by making the audience feel uneasy, by reversing reversals, by disturbing patterns of coherence”.

Actors are required to speak Shaw’s text with concentrated force and skill, with a rhetorical virtuosity that drives home all of Shaw’s brilliantly envisioned ideas.  Stylistically, actors are encouraged and challenged to work in a bigger style than may be comfortable for them.  Certainly Shaw wanted actors trained in melodrama and “saturated with declamatory poetry” in order to rise to the demands of his “blatant theatricality”.  For a director, this is the ultimate challenge, to marry the ‘inner truth’ of the actor/character with the intellectual and stylistic demands of the plays.

Finding the truth and reality of all the relationships between the characters is, of course, enormously important and absolutely essential.  Henry Higgins, Sweetie, Hesione, Lina, Lady Britomart– are all gloriously individual, outsize characters whose depth must be mined and explored fully during the rehearsal process.  Great attention must be paid to the moment-to-moment reality of the plays, so that every character must listen to the debate and exchange of ideas, listening for what affects them, what draw them in, what repels them in a character’s argument. This exploration continues all through rehearsals, along with the task of extending the range and broadness of the performances so that everyone on stage has the larger than life quality that Shaw demands.

We constantly focus on the drama of the ideas, the passions of the mind, always striving for the clarity and dynamic energy that will give every thought its “bullet”.  As well, I deal with the pace of the play, the pitch (of the various voices as well as the musical notes in each speech), the orchestration of the debates and the individual strands that make up the web of the whole.

I am always aware of and working towards the contrast in mood, tempo (each character has or her individual tempo) and tone between the units of the scenes and acts and between the voices of the actors, and the overall rhythm of the scene.  (Each scene must be directly contrasted in pace and rhythm to the preceding scene, just as each speech must be in direct contrast to the preceding speech in tone and tempo).

Working on Shaw is truly to explore a brave new world that is unlike any other in dramatic literature.  His creation of a drama of impassioned ideas and his use of language as the primary tool to communicate these ideas, was revolutionary in its time and remains so today.  Directing a play by Shaw is a thrilling and profound experience, which is unique and demands the very best that directors and actors can give to the process/journey of exploration and discovery.


One Response to “give me the drunken, stagey, brass-bowelled barnstormers…”

  1. Great job of summing it up, and I can’t wait to see how individual practitioners respond.

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