Posted by David Cote, Guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 December 2009
- New York reviewer David Cote is braced for jeers – and possibly cheers – as he unveils his ending to George Bernard Shaw’s unfinished play
Critic turned playwright … George Bernard Shaw. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty
Who is better suited than a theatre critic to write a play? After all, we spend our lives marinating in the damn things, reading them, watching them, analysing their structure and rhetoric as we chase the deadline. We know our classics, naturally, but must stay current on living authors. It’s a wonder we don’t all dream in two acts with interval.
So why am I appalled at the prospect of presenting my fatuous five-page «ending» to George Bernard Shaw‘s unfinished one-act Why She Would Not? It’s no more than a sketch, fondly spoofing Shaw’s penchant for paradox and his curious mix of secular mysticism and utopianism. My scene, and those of three other critics as well as the bona fide dramatist Israel Horovitz, will be performed on 14 December 2009 to mark the culmination of Project Shaw’s ambitious goal: readings of the entire Shaw oeuvre. Producer and director David Staller solicited a group of critics to provide endings to the parable-like comedy that Shaw left incomplete at his death in 1950.
Staller targeted critics for a reason (and not just because we’re good drinking companions): from 1895 to 98, as a critic in the Saturday Review, Shaw carved a wide, bloody path through the London theatre scene as an iconoclastic champion of social realism and a tireless mocker of romanticism. He bowdlerised Shakespeare (he was particularly hard on Henry Irving) and began writing plays out of a sense of mission, to fill an ideological and aesthetic void. He was the supreme example of critic turned artist.
And he’s not the only one. In March, stage vulture Nicholas de Jongh flew the Evening Standard coop after the West End premiere of his Gielgud-inspired Plague Over England. Last year, Michael Billington directed Lamda students in a Harold Pinter triple bill. The New Yorker’s John Lahr co-created Elaine Stritch: At Liberty with the diva herself and took it to Broadway and the West End. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal penned the libretto to Paul Moravec’s The Letter, which premiered this summer at the Santa Fe Opera House. Was it possible for me to join such illustrious company?
In truth, playwriting is not new to me: for two years I’ve been hammering away at a full-length drama, also commissioned by Staller and Project Shaw. I’m now in the middle of the third draft, and by January 2010 the play should be ready for an invited reading.
If this Shaw vignette is causing me sleepless nights, it’s because I’m more accustomed to sitting in the darkness, scribbling like an attentive, literate mole. We critics live vicariously, amassing experiences without really doing anything. My words have never provoked guffaws or sobs from an audience. To touch strangers and unite them in a theatrical moment: I’ve never known that joy.