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Plays

Heartbreak House (BBC, 1958, 1977)

Title screen for Heartbreak House, BBC, 1977You have just until Saturday to catch the engaging revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House at Chichester Festival Theatre (it closes on 25 August). Derek Jacobi stars in a production by Richard Clifford that, especially towards the end, conjures up something of the intensity, eccentricity and sheer strangeness of the text. Seeing the production on Friday night has prompted me to return to Shaw on the small screen – and I want to promise a short ‘festival’ of blog posts about the writer over the next fortnight (after a summer recess when we have rather neglected the blog).

In the Penguin edition published in 2000 of Heartbreak House, which was first performed in 1920, David Hare noted that the plays of ‘the problematic figure of George Bernard Shaw’ had lost their previously central place in the modern repertory. ‘Sometimes,’ Hare observed, ‘it is as if we no longer quite know what to do with him.’ (‘Introduction’, Heartbreak House, London: Penguin, p. 9) In two previous posts, here and here, I detailed how this eclipse of the writer can be traced in the decline in presentations of his work by the ITV companies (although the progressive disappearance of stage plays from the screen from the mid-1960s onwards also played a part in this).

Such recognitions of the theatrical disappearance of GBS are hardly original. Writing in The Manchester Guardian in May 1958, nearly eight years after the playwright’s death (but only three months after the London opening of My Fair Lady, adapted from Shaw’s Pygmalion), Gerard Fay lamented that ‘Shaw is suffering from the post-mortem slump which so often affects the reputation of great authors’. The only notable Shavian event of the year (apart from the opening of My Fair Lady) that Fay could identify was a BBC broadcast of Heartbreak House which had apparently been seen by six and a half million viewers, ‘certainly the largest Shaw audience of all times’. (‘Slump in Shaw not absolute’, 28 May 1958, p. 5)

John Gielgud in Heartbreak House, 1977That first Heartbreak House came during a golden decade for Shaw on the small screen. During the 1950s there were at least twenty-four full-length adaptations of his dramas for television, and that includes counting as just one the five-part Back to Methusaleh presented by the BBC in the early summer of 1952 (nothing of which was recorded). The only other occasion that British television has tackled the sprawling state-of-the-nation piece that is Heartbreak House was in 1977, when a Play of the Month presentation was something of a directing swansong for the long-serving producer of the strand, Cedric Messina. Messina was about to take on The BBC Television Shakespeare, which was perhaps just as well, at least in the opinion of Sir John Gielgud, who played Captain Shotover in Messina’s presentation. In a letter to Irene Worth, Gielgud wrote

‘Had rather a boss shot at Shotover I fear – a very indifferent production by Cedric Messina, who has no talent as a director, whatever qualities he may have as a producer.’ (‘To Irene Worth, 17 February [1977], Wotton Underwood’, Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters, introduced and edited by Richard Mangan, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004, p. 410; with my thanks to Dr Billy Smart for the reference)

(Another television version of the play was produced in 1985 by the American cable channel Showtime and broadcast also in the Great Performances strand on PBS. This was taken from a Broadway production, and has Anthony Page directing Rex Harrison, Amy Irving and Rosemary Harris.)

Heartbreak House for World Television Theatre, 1958

Only one section running just under twenty minutes of the two-hour 1958 production appears now to survive. The viewing copy from the BBC film library bears the label “incomplete” and the on-screen timecodes note that the existing footage comprises two almost-ten-minute reels from a total of ten; the second of these follows on from the first. It may be, as Amanda Wrigley has noted about the BBC’s Women of Troy, also from 1958, that only this part of the production was telerecorded ‘for the archives’. What we have is the concluding part of Act II, from Ellie’s question, ‘Does nothing ever disturb you, Captain Shotover?’ through to the end. There is then just the briefest glimpse of the opening of Act III, which is set in the garden of the rural villa that Ellie has dubbed ‘Heartbreak House’.

Heartbreak House from The Listener, February 1958As Shaw envisaged the action, Acts I and II are contained in ‘a room which has been built so as to resemble the after part of an old-fashioned high-pooped ship with a stern gallery’ (opening stage directions, Heartbreak House, Act I), and this naval quality is very apparent in the studio design. Mark Dignam, who had been a television regular from before the war, plays Shotover and the central role of Ellie is taken by Josephine Stuart, but in the preserved extract neither makes much of an impact. Something between one-sixth and one-quarter of the text has been cut (this is also the case in the 1977 production, although the excisions are different), most of the scene is played by the cameras in mid-shot, and the only music cue, which has a modernist, electronic quality, covers the act break.

The critics at the time appear to have been respectful if not overly enthusiastic. In The Listener, Ivor Brown suggested that ‘the heartbreak, and jawbreak, on board Captain Shotover’s script… was agreeable to the intelligence, if not exceptional as performance.’ (‘Assorted sizes’, 6 February 1958, p. 254) Maurice Richardson for The Observer was also engaged, although there is something a little dutiful about his summation that ‘the production kept up a nice, fast tempo, and two hours flew by.’ (‘Sparks and thuds’, 9 February 1958, p. 13)

The producer of Heartbreak House was the BBC’s Head of Television Drama Michael Barry (the link is to a detailed and informative biography by Oliver Wake at the British Television Drama website) and the production was part of his cherished strand Television World Theatre. This series ran through the early months of 1958 (the first production was Shakespeare’s Henry V, shown on 29 December 1957) and – as simply World Theatre – during the summer of 1959. These were ambitious and unapologetically ‘high-brow’ studio stagings of major theatrical classics from both the British tradition and from abroad (for discussions of other productions in the two series, see the blog posts about Women of Troy, 12 January 1958; Julius Caesar, 5 May 1959; and Brand,11 August 1959).

Barry’s commitment to the cornerstones of the canon, however, was increasingly perceived by the Corporation’s executives to be inappropriate at the moment of ITV’s populist challenge. Oliver Wake at British Television Drama quotes the producer Don Taylor on Barry’s departure from the BBC in September 1961:

Rumour and bar conversation had it that Michael had resigned – it had been a real resignation, not a polite sacking – because the sixth floor, the programme controllers and directors, had demanded of him a change of policy with regard to BBC Drama output that he could not accept. More series and serials were required, and Michael, who regarded himself as a plays man, was not prepared to preside over such a change. (Days of Vision, London: Methuen, p. 99)

Barry was replaced just over a year after his resignation by the architect of ITV’s drama achievement, Sydney Newman, who would oversee popular triumphs such as Doctor Who (1963-85, 2005-ongoing) and the critically-acclaimed The Wednesday Play (1964-70). Newman, however, would also recognise the need to continue Barry’s mission in Play of the Month, which began in October 1965 and ran until the autumn of 1983. Too tight a focus on high-rating popular drama, he wrote in an internal memo dated 24 July 1963, would ‘risk losing the very influential but minority audience who have a fine taste in drama and who shun the trivial.’ (WAC T5/2, 079/1, quoted in William Smart, ‘Old wine in new bottles: adaptation of classic theatrical plays on BBC Television 1957-1985’, unpublished PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway College, 2010)

Heartbreak House for Play of the Month, 1977

Play of the Month was initially conceived as a BBC1 home for large-scale productions with starry casts, and its exclusive focus on theatrical adaptations came only with the third series. In ‘Old wine in new bottles…’ William Smart quotes a memo from Controller BBC1 Michael Peacock:

I am moving towards the view that as long as we have The Wednesday Play offering original television plays dealing with contemporary themes, Play of the Month should present plays written originally for the theatre and which have been recognised as classics – as part of our cultural heritage. This would mean Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen, etc, and also Miller, Anouilh, Osborne, etc. (23 November 1966, WAC T5/1, 794/1)

A decade later, the astute critic W. Stephen Gilbert, writing in the recently initiated television preview column of The Observer, reflected that ‘With Shakespeare and Chekhov, Shaw is a member of the triumvirate that dominates [Play of the Month producer] Cedric Messina’s output.’ (‘The week in view’, 15 May 1977, p. 33) Gilbert was drawing the attention of his readers to the tenth Shaw play to be done for Play of the Month during that decade, Heartbreak House. He hails the production of this ‘lovely, larky, unforgivably tongue in cheek play’ as one that ‘pits a sumptuous cast against a luscious set, radiantly lit.’

Well, up to a point. Certainly the text can be presented as ‘lovely, larky’ (as a colleague said of the current Chichester production, ‘played as if it were Noel Coward… all breezy inconsequentiality (more Hay Fever than Heartbreak)’). But David Hare in the ‘Introduction” mentioned above suggests that ‘far from the governing tone of the play being either light-hearted or elegiac, it is, on the contrary, full of the feverishness of a genuine despair’. Shaw referenced extensively the plays of Chekhov in his statements about the play, but he also saw it as his King Lear.

Sian Phillips and Lesley Anne-Down in Heartbreak House, BBC, 1977There is little sense of despair in Messina’s production, but nor is there really a unity of tone, as John Gielgud observed in his letter to Irene Worth:

‘The young Ellie – a girl named Lesley-Anne Down was very willing and extremely pretty but not experienced enough for that very difficult part. Dan Massey awful (and tiresome too) as Hector, Sian Phillips not at all right for Hesione – no comedy – she played it as a Burne-Jones romantic, Barbara Murray rather good as Ariadne, and David Waller and Richard Pearson excellent as Mangan and Mazzini, but it was all very uneven – enormous baroque sets! quite unnecessary and rather unsuitable, everyone rushing about to try and justify the amount of talk. I was very glad to be finished with it.’

He is spot-on about the sets, which were designed by Tony Abbott. Instead of the action of the first two acts being kept to the single room of Shaw’s original, it sprawls across the ground floor of a mansion, takes a trip of two up (and down) a twin staircase, and even spills out into the garden, which Shaw was careful to reserve for the concluding act. The garden itself is a bleak assembly of empty flower beds, abandoned classical statuary and piles of dead leaves – a metaphor if ever there was one for the dessicated remnants of European civilisation just before the First World War. ‘Quite unnecessary and rather unsuitable’.

The broader context of the play’s composition and its contemporary resonances is suggested by the interpolation of newsreel (and perhaps also model shots) of early twentieth century zeppelins, then World War Two footage of bombing raids and finally a freeze-frame of a mushroom cloud over which the closing credits roll. In The Times, Michael Ratcliffe was initially impressed by the device, but ‘it became too brilliant, too sharp, exposing ever further the lack of ominous resonance in the production itself.’ More generally, he wrote of the cast that ‘they ran through the play at such a smart lick that they almost ran the play through.’ (‘Heartbreak House‘, 20 May 1977, p. 13)

Have there been, I wonder, any television productions of Shaw that seek another way of approaching the words, words, words of his dramas? Can we imagine a small screen presentation ‘full of the feverishness of genuine despair’? Certainly, neither of these productions, at least on the partial evidence of what has come down to us, achieves anything close to that – or to an intensity of something comparable. And without that, both on screen and on the stage, Shaw will continue to take a place in which, as David Hare wrote, ‘we no longer quite know what to do with him’.

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