BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
My Astonishing Self
It's impossible to give a full portrait of a man as complex and diversified as George Bernard Shaw. Therefore Michael Voysey's My Astonishing Self currently at the Irish Repertory Theater in Chelsea deserves double praise. Using Shaw's essays, epistolatory romance with the Actress Ellen Terry and extensive speeches as his source material, he's created a meaningful collage of Shaw's life and opinion. Moreover, he's done so with enough theatricality to entertain those familiar with Shaw's life and work and those who aren't, though the more Shaw-literate will have an edge, as is true of any such staged memoir. To bring the script to life, there's the endearing Irish actor, Donal Donnelly, who has grown pleasingly mature in the course of the two decades during which he's been portraying G.B.S.
The title which sums up both Shaw's impish humor and considerable (and deserved) self-esteem is explained a little past the midway mark of the proceedings. Shaw-Donnelly introduces a list of geniuses from around the world with a Bulwer-Lytton quote--"Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can"&--and, smiling devilishly, concludes "and Ireland produced my astonishing self." This blend of ego and whimsy perfectly captures Shaw's own comments on his celebrated reputation. In the play Donnelly explains that he convinced the English about his greatness by "repetitive self-promotion." In a quote found in our own notebooks he described the celebrated G.B.S. "about as real as a pantomime ostrich" explaining his methods vis-àvis himself as follows: "I have played my game with a conscience. I have never pretended that G.B. S. was real. I have over and over again taken him to pieces before the audience to show the trick of him."
Moving from one side of the spare stage, and with only three changes of suit jackets and a cane to suggest the passage of time, Donnelly shows us Shaw from nineteen to ninety. He doesn't so much impersonate Shaw as get inside the man's mind. And what a mind it is, filled with incisive opinions on everything from religion to marriage and friendship. While he rates formal religion as a failure he's convinced that Jesus the man "has not been a failure yet" because "no one has tried his ways.quot; As for the religious heroine of one of his most successful plays, Saint Joan, he humorously deflates her as an insufferable know-it-all who is nevertheless a true phenomenum because of the way she combined inept youth and originality. Through Shaw's correspondence with Ellen Terry we see friendship elevated to a love affair, ("She grew tired of four husbands but never of me"), and also as the core of his long, happy and sexually unconsummated marriage.
Like any dramatic monologue, My Astonishing Self does have moments when the lecture aspects of this format are likely to make some members of the audience a bit restive. However, there are enough poignant moments, to draw them back in. The scenes in which he sheepishly finds himself "in love" at age fifty-six, the death of his wife, and his final interview as a frail nonagenarian are particularly moving. His moving tribute to Albert Einstein reminded us of another famous man monologue seen last September at the American Jewish theater 9/24/96: Einstein: A Stage Portrait.
There are currently no Shaw revivals in town but in case My Astonishing Heart awakened your interest in his work, you could check video dealers for two Shaw golden oldie treasures: Pygmalion and Major Barbara, both starring the wonderful Wendy Hiller. We've also added several Shaw-isms to our Quotes 'n Notes from Current and Past Plays as well some of his ncisive comments on the theater to Quotes By and About the Theater World's 's Famous and Infamous