100-year-old Shaw drama shows shades of Lambeth

Published September 1, 2008

I HAD NO INKLING taking my seat in The Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake that what I was really doing was attending a backgrounder on the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference.  But then again that simply reflects the enduring relevance of British dramatist and social critic, George Bernard Shaw.

Getting Married is a farce with ideas about the twists, turns and angst over the state of marriage in Edwardian England, and the arguments played out on stage ring so true with the arguments of today that the average theatre-goer is forgiven for believing it to be a modern story costumed in period dress. Making the irony just that much sweeter is that the drama was first staged in the summer of 1908 in London, a full century ago and all that needs to be changed to make it a docu-drama is a slight tweaking of dialogue.

Getting Married is set in the kitchen of the bishop’s house during the morning of the marriage of his sixth daughter. And these impending nuptials will be almost derailed by a layered argument between the characters about what a marriage means, what the rules should be, the role of the church, civil society and human feelings. Because this is an argument-driven farce, the characters are cardboard archetypes: the bride and groom are young people worried about roles, the law and each other. An old maid aunt and her besotted life-long suitor, a retired military officer, wrestle with how marriage does or doesn’t fulfill a life. A brother in the final stages of his divorce proceedings, his soon to be ex-wife and her lover argue over fidelity, excitement and making marriages work through time. The bishop and his loving and loved wife are an example of a marriage that works while the bishop’s secretary, a crusty “literalist” priest and the wise common man, a greengrocer, chime in with opposite perspectives on making do and theological rigidity.  

Because these characters are representations and not real people, the better than average acting can’t overcome the relative unbelievability of the roles, but no mind for it is the ideas that make this play worth seeing.

Of course, Edwardian England is not a complete parallel for today, and in a real way this is a play about feminism, not gay rights but there is a thoughtful reflection on the role of marriage in human fulfillment and the roles, for good and bad, in church and state arguing about what does and what does not work when it comes to saying a marriage is valid or not.

For Anglicans, actually all Christians, watching the liberal book-writing bishop and his conservative single misanthropic secretary spar over what the Bible does or doesn’t tell us about the role of marriage in salvation will provoke laughter, frissons of deja vu and not a small amount of post play reflection.   

Shaw was a somewhat tortured soul with a tangled history of fraught encounters with the institution of marriage and cannot be seen as a traditionalist. He struggled his whole life to create drama that captured real life dilemmas and quandaries in a form that entertained as well as provoked. That this meant tackling marriage at the beginning of the 20th century only naturally follows. That it means being relevant at the beginning of the 21st century says as much about human nature as it does about George Bernard Shaw.  


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