In a Manhattan apartment late last week a gathering of actors, writers, diplomats and others paid tribute to what is beyond doubt a standout season for Irish playwrights on the New York stage.
The event, at the home of Irish Consul General Tim O’Connor, was, according to the invitation, to honor the teams behind “three great Irish plays” that were, at the time of the celebratory gathering, poised to land a bucketful of Tonys at last Sunday’s annual Broadway awards extravaganza.
The three plays in question were Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and Conor McPherson’s “Shining City.”
The Irish have long been a power in New York theater but three acclaimed plays in one season is, for sure, worth an extra toast.
And yet, what it has taken three renowned Irish writing hands to produce in 2006 took only one to achieve, twice over, in 1906.
In that year, when Teddy Roosevelt became the first president to actually leave the shores of the United States, six plays penned by George Bernard Shaw made landings on the east coast and laid claim to an unrivaled square footage of New York stage space.
Shaw, at 50, had reached the pinnacle of his popularity in America as audiences flocked to see “Caesar and Cleopatra,” “Arms and the Man,” “Man and Superman,” “John Bull’s Other Island,” “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and Major Barbara.”
All six packed them in, though none quite to the extent of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the central themes of which were poverty and prostitution.
It was raided by the police on the grounds of indecency, closed down and was performed in protest by the cast the following night in the street.
Still, “Mrs. Warren” had at least made it to the stage unlike in England where the play had been initially censored. Indeed, it had gathered dusted for nine years before its first public production in 1902.
Shaw — who up to that time had struggled to see his works produced in the leading London theaters, and was viewed with some suspicion Britain’s elite due to his left-leaning politics — found himself the unlikely toast of the town in the new world’s capital of capitalism.
It was quite an accomplishment for a man who hailed from humble beginnings in a far smaller old world city.
Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856. His father, George, was an unsuccessful merchant with a fondness for the bottle. His mother, Lucinda, was a professional singer who left her husband and moved to London when her son was just shy of sixteen.
A few years later, Shaw followed his mother across the Irish Sea.
Bernard Shaw (he didn’t like the name George and never used it) began his working life as a journalist. He also became involved in politics and gave an early hint of his dramatic bent as a soapbox orator at the famed Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park.
In time, Shaw helped found the Fabian Society, a group that became a wellspring for late 19th century socialist thinking in Britain and beyond.
Shaw, now a theater critic, wrote his first play, “Widower’s Houses,” in 1891. It was a stinging attack on slum landlords. He more or less produced a play a year for the next dozen, thus providing the necessary product to meet the kind of voracious demand for entertainment that had became a New York hallmark by 1906.
Shaw survived a serious ailment in 1898 and had soon after married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a well-to-do Irish woman. Their marriage was to last 45 years.
By the early years of the twentieth century, Bernard Shaw had clearly found his muse, but in 1904 he finally found a secure home for his work in the Court Theatre in London’s Chelsea.
Up to the outbreak of World War One, Shaw both directed his existing plays and penned new works even as he devoted time and energy to causes and campaigns, not least one aimed at curbing dramatic censorship.
Shaw’s vocal opposition to the Great War and his defense of the 1916 Rising almost ruined his career but peace restored his spirits and his stature to the point that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 — this in the wake of the huge success of “Saint Joan,” considered by many, though not the man himself, to be Shaw’s finest work.
By now a wealthy man, Shaw gave away the money that came with the Nobel award. By the end of the decade, Shaw’s star had become permanent in the dramatic firmament but his writing did not tail off. He wrote letters and plays in abundance over the next two decades.
Unlike his plays, Shaw set foot on American soil only twice, and in dramatically different settings. One was the Metropolitan Opera House in New York where he delivered a lecture and the other was San Simeon, the palatial California home of William Randolph Hearst, where he had lunch.
Shaw’s life looked like it might hit a century but it ended, prematurely. He was 94 and his death, seven years after the passing of his wife, resulted not from old age but from complications from a thigh injury after he fell off a ladder. He had been cutting branches off a tree.
Shaw’s will included the directing of royalties from some of his most notable works, including “My Fair Lady,” the film version of “Pygmalion,” to the National Gallery in Dublin. The gallery benefits from Shaw’s generosity to this day.
Shaw continues to generate boundless interest, argument and discourse. Even as the Tony Awards were being dished out, a Shaw gathering was winding up at Brown University in Rhode Island.
The International Shaw Society explains itself on its website as being devoted to the study of a man who became “the consummate juggler of ideas in a world of nothing but spin.”
Shaw, according to Douglas Laurie, was simply ahead of his time.
“What he wrote about is still relevant to this day and the issues have not been resolved. It’s a pity he’s not in Washington,” Laurie, secretary of the Bernard Shaw Society in New York, said.
“He was not an obvious propaganda writer. His characters are so real and articulate and his writing so witty,” Laurie told the Echo.
Laurie said that Shaw’s lasting appeal was helped by the fact that truly good comedy so seldom dated.
“If you cover a serious subject, yet sugar coat the pill and make people laugh, the play will continue to do well years later,” he said.