BWW Reviews: The Drawing Room as Snow Globe - Shaw's MISALLIANCE at Olney
Misalliance is a word adopted from the French term for an unfortunate diplomatic relationship, which only within the last two centuries has been extended to refer to regrettable romantic relationships and marriages. George Bernard Shaw, in whose lifetime the word was first employed in the second sense in English, undoubtedly had both senses in mind when he entitled his 1909 play Misalliance. Although the play is primarily concerned with the vagaries of British mating rituals of its era, there are many more kinds of incompatibility through which Shaw rummages as he proceeds.
Indeed the central dynamic of the play is the jamming of as many incompatible classes and opinions on the stage at one time as possible, and trying out how they fit together (or do not). Shaw's inspiration was to do it in the framework of a drawing room comedy. While this venerable dramatic format has almost always featured some juxtaposition of classes (often a crowd of toffs with a working-class maid or butler thrown in for comic relief), Shaw stretches this convention to nearly the breaking point. By the time the entire ensemble is on stage at the end of what is usually presented as the second act (there is no demarcation between acts in the script, and the original production had two intermissions), there is no longer any dramatic plausibility to The Situation. No group that large and that diverse would cohere long enough to participate in a single conversation.
By then, the stage is laden with five members of the class of wealthy shopkeepers, two aristocrats, a young member of the working class, and a socially unclassifiable foreigner; there are defenders of privilege, social progressives and socialists (not at all the same); proponents of giving social acceptance to new freedoms for women and women who wish to make use of new freedoms (also not necessarily the same). There have been 14 proposals of marriage, onstage and off, among the characters, some of them of the extreme May/December variety.
In short, Shaw has taken the drawing room (here actually a glass-roofed sunroom) and shaken it up like a snow globe to see how things fall within it.
In Olney Theatre's very lucid new revival of the play, we are given a clear sense of how Shaw thought they would fall. (I say "would" because it is hard to contemplate Shaw being foolish enough to believe in the verisimilitude of this concoction; he knows it's fiction. The world of the sunroom is a dramatic convention as much as those scenes at the end of a Shakespeare play where everyone gets married and all problems are resolved.)
And where (if we believed in the sunroom) would everything fall? According to Shaw, humbuggery would be unmasked, and clear-eyed women would choose fewer but better marital unions.
Pretty much everyone is a humbug somewhere along the line. John Tarleton (Joe Vincent), the shopkeeper turned plutocrat and patriarch, is actually not the family man he professes to be, as becomes clear when Julius Baker (Drew Kopas) who may be the product of an extramarital fling, turns up. Baker, who espouses sexual freedom in theory as a proper socialist, is shocked when he witnesses a mild case of it in progress in his vicinity. Hypatia, Tarleton's ingenue daughter (Patricia Hurley), who makes use of that freedom to ignore Bentley, her intended (Matthew McGloin), and pursue a likelier male prospect named Joseph (Alex Podulke) who happens unexpectedly on the scene, denies it all when Baker confronts her. Joseph bullies Baker into denying the evidence of Baker's own eyes. And so on. No one wants to admit how much Eros governs him or her.
Except that the women have another secret as well: they have subordinated their eroticism to practicality and become Shavian "new women". Hence Hypatia jilts her effete intended and rejects her intended's aristocratic and elderly father, in order to pursue Joseph, a vigorous if slightly impecunious young man. This seems to be a manifestation of a hard-eyed practicality on the part of some motivating Life Force. As does the determination of the iconoclastic Lina Szczepanowska, Polish tightrope walker and aviatrix (Andrea Cirie), with whom the whole household falls in love when she unexpectedly crashes the party. She chooses out of hand not to marry any of the males there, though almost all of them pursue her. For either of these women (the only eligible women in the play) to have mated otherwise would have been a misalliance.