CANDIDA by George Bernard Shaw
One hundred and fifteen years after it was written, I left the Irish Rep’s beautifully appointed new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida wondering whether the title character had actually earned her classic knockout punch in the last act. As you may recall from Modern Drama class, this is the play where men are compared to babies. As Candida demands: “Ask James’s mother and his three sisters what it cost to save James the trouble of doing anything but be strong and clever and happy. Ask me what it costs to be James’s mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one.” At college, during the second wave of feminism, it seemed a profound insight. Today, away from the ivory tower, I wonder whether the lady doth protest too much: Candida has a stable marriage (James wouldn’t leave her, and she’s not up for walking out of the relationship); she’s able to get away from her children from time to time (in fact, if we saw her dealing more with the kids, we might notice her plight more); and she’s not a mere ornament for her husband (Candida doesn’t have to be by his side at his speaking engagements, for example). Additionally, she has help around the house, love from her husband (to what extent he can give it), and beautiful clothes (for an alternate view of religious life and marital torment, set in 1908, see the film The Best Intentions directed by Bille August and written by Ingmar Bergman).
Having functioned on his own for three weeks at the start of the play, James has been doing just fine without a mother, three sisters, and a wife—Candida’s the one who enters ready for the white glove test. A death wish she doesn’t have (as does Hedda Gabler) nor might she be exposed for having committed a crime (as might Nora). Candida certainly has her own admirers (as does James), and she would never be destitute–her father has some money (in fact, she knows more about finances than does the young man infatuated with her, Marchbanks). You can imagine Freud agonizing in the background, “So what do women want, anyway?”
I do think the part, and the play, are a challenge to present today, especially considering our own turbulent times. How to play Candida? Is she overwhelmed by the child rearing, does she want more recognition of the kind James is getting? It’s not hard for us to believe that women would have had more difficult lives at the time; the challenge is to make us feel the problems, so that we see that James has the cush role and Candida is slaving away. Maybe it’s a case of the wrong title character for a different age: a more pertinent messenger for us might have been one of the women Shaw tells us were paid starvation wages by Candida’s father and then fired—even here, James reports on the injustices, not the title character. Maybe Candida is concerned that she isn’t earning any income and feels dependent—but, oddly, Prossy, a young woman who does make a salary as a secretary, is thought to be lower class, and she’s not portrayed as someone to be emulated (could she ever have imagined that everyone would be typing as time went forward?). Perhaps the portrayal of James needs to be made more emotionally immature (Ciaran O’Reilly makes complete sense of the part as a stalwart Christian, living a man’s life as defined by his faith—but he may not seem spoiled enough, pleased enough with himself). The character keeps busy, though; he does provide as best he can: with contemporary church attendances going down today, James, the parson, might be traversing the circuit as a motivational speaker. Intimating that speaking and writing aren’t enough, Shaw and Candida would probably both either laugh or be shocked to find that Western countries had lost many of their manufacturing jobs—and employees today are often doing variations of what James does (there’s less recrimination for a character not working more with his hands now, although I do understand what the playwright means).
What Shaw does do expertly is move characters in and out of rooms and through the play with ease (which had been a challenge for Ibsen)—even if the stage action seems limited. Candida was actually written in response to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; Shaw admired the other playwright, but, strangely, they’ve come out on the opposite sides of the marriage question, using today’s lens (this may have had to do with Shaw’s support of Fabianism, which wanted society to change without revolutionary action). Because we don’t see the drudgery of Candida’s life in the text or, especially in this production (here we have beautiful romantic music, a setting of red oriental carpets overlapping red oriental carpets, lighting suggesting the glow of the hearth, and Candida’s gorgeous green costume). There’s no question, the taste is impeccable: if we simply wanted to preserve the drama, the playwright could not be better served. The cast is excellent, too: besides O’Reilly’s James, Brian Murray plays Candida’s father; Xanthe Elbrick is the secretary, Prossy; and Josh Grisetti is an eccentric young curate—they’re all characters the actors embrace. Sam Underwood does play the young poet–whom Candida has not real intention of educating in the ways of love—as immature. Melissa Errico and the director, Tony Walton, do their best with the lead, but the stakes aren’t elucidated, and the text doesn’t offer much help in deciphering her. Candida, the play with lines to rally a feminist convention, finally gives us a heroine who, despite her socialist leanings, won’t take action beyond talking a good game: “How conventional all you unconventional people are!” she says. From our point of view in 2010, she might as well be talking about herself. We might even describe her as being a Conservative woman: a stay-at-home mom, doing work for the church, helping her husband’s career to the extent that she can bear. It really can bend your mind when you think that she would agree with Right-wing flamethrower Ann Coulter who wrote the following in Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America—“ . . . as a society, we need to understand: staying in marriage, even a bad marriage, is better for the children except in the most egregious cases because single parents, even conscientious, well-meaning single parents, generally don't do as good a job raising their children as two-parent families.” Shaw, as well as Ibsen, is probably rolling in his grave.
Despite her own ranting and imperiousness, in the end, Candida doesn’t change, whether because she feels that society has her locked in, she’s grown too comfortable, or she and Coulter have become buddies. It’s especially hard to interpret this play because we don’t know what Candida wants or what she physically can make happen for herself. It’s interesting to reconsider this play in light of Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which was written in 1890. What he decides is that “Ibsen insists . . . that there is no golden rule—that conduct must justify itself by its effect upon happiness.” In contrast is Shaw, looking for an answer for everyone.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Press Contact: Shirley Herz/Robert Lasko
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What the Critics Have to Say…
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a more suitable cast than the one assembled for Tony Walton's revival of George Bernard Shaw's Candida at the Irish Repertory Theatre. It is a very lovely, respectful production with some fine acting. – nytheater.com
"Charmingly reveals the timeless edge to Shaw's views and provides humorous insight into the ways a spouse of any era can effectively rebel against being taken for granted. This production of "Candida" is a fun perceptive romp through late Victorian sexual politics that is perfectly at home in the 21st century." – Associated Press
"After its stunning presentation of The Emperor Jones, followed by a charming revival of Ernest in Love, The Irish Rep's lavish and loving presentation of George Bernard Shaw's Candida makes this one of the company's most winning seasons in a very long time. Tony Walton's impeccable taste and talent makes the Irish Rep's stage and the characters that inhabit it look like they're on Broadway. Errico is flawless in her performance of the title role, being at once luminous, tough-minded, and deceptively romantic. Underwood's endearing poetic excess is both charming and hilarious. Xanthe Elbrick comes damned near to stealing the play in her supporting role as the young typist who is secretly in love with Candida's husband, as the actress shows off an unexpected comic flair; the iconic Brian Murray as Candida's scoundrel father, a clownish capitalist, leavens the play with his comedy; and Josh Grisetti as a young curate brightens his scenes with a delightful bit of charm. In all, this is a must-see production of a too-rarely performed play." – Theatermania
"The Irish Repertory Theatre's thoroughly engaging and perfectly cast revival, as directed by Broadway set designer Tony Walton, is truly as good as it gets. Ciaran O'Reilly, starts off playing Reverend James Morell as a warm, affable fella. But as the play evolves and his character suddenly finds himself on the torture rack, There is a real innocence to O'Reilly's performance. The Irish Repertory Theatre is certainly having a terrific season. In its way, this small theater company dedicated to an Irish angle is becoming one of Off-Broadway's truly best classical theater companies." - AM NY
“A comic actor of great intelligence who cheerily forsakes subtlety here, Mr. Murray is often very amusing as this pointed Shavian cartoon of a grasping opportunist — “an old scoundrel,” as Morell calls him with familial amity. Mr. Murray’s many variations on looking dumbfounded, as one or another of the Morell ménage is said to be completely crackers, are a delight to behold. Not to mention the gorgeous parlor over which she (Candida) presides. Mr. Walton, a leading set and costume designer for Broadway for decades, fills the stage with ornate but tasteful lived-in wood furnishings and sumptuous red fabrics that are as savory to look at as the evening’s leading lady, whom he dresses in smashing green velvet and diaphanous white frills. Candida’s lovely frocks, and lovely furnishings, would be an inducement in themselves to sending the love-struck little Marchbanks on his way.” – NY Times
"Tony Walton has staged a smart and winning revival at the intimate Irish Repertory Theatre. Though Melissa Errico is radiant as Candida, this is much more than a star vehicle. Walton has made sure each of the six characters is given equal weight and a full voice in the debate. Errico is an enchanting heroine and ably portrays a beautiful woman who is not content to be seen as a goddess to be worshipped. Ciaran O'Reilly wisely underplays the charismatic Morrell, Likewise, Sam Underwood nimbly steps over the trap of playing Marchbanks as a spoiled child. Both these actors find the attractive men beyond their obvious exteriors, which makes Candida's final choice between them that much more believable and difficult. Xanthe Elbrick goes far beyond the Miss Grundy spinster stereotype as the repressed typist Prossy. The reliable Brian Murray employs a lifetime of stage experience to vivify Burgess, Candida's father, a wily entrepreneur out to use his son-in-law's connections to full advantage. Josh Grisetti is so deeply in character as the slightly pompous curate Mill that I didn't even recognize him as the same actor who played the lovably nerdy lead in "Enter Laughing: The Musical" last season at the York Theatre Company. They add up to an admirable ensemble for this rarely seen gem." – Backstage
“As usual, George Bernard Shaw was ahead of his time with his sharp observations in “Candida,” All of this plays out beautifully in the second act of the revival offered by the Irish Repertory Theatre. Errico builds slowly in her role, but in the second act she and everything else rise into focus. She is captivating as she takes command of the situation, Errico handles her crucial lines with intelligence, charm and precision. O’Reilly rises to the occasion too, as the reverend reveals himself to Candida. Under Tony Walton’s understanding direction, the play achieves the necessary unity of purpose by the final curtain, and one comes away with renewed appreciation of Shaw and gratitude for the opportunity to see this work again.” – William Wolf
"The Irish Repertory Theatre's thoroughly engaging and perfectly cast revival, is truly as good as it gets." – OnOff Broadway
Through April 18th
Wednesday – Saturday @ 8pm
Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday @ 3pm
Tickets are on sale now at 212-727-2737