Misalliance and No-No Boy

I had the opportunity to see the play Misalliance by Bernard Shaw at The Pearl Theatre earlier this week. Although I’ve heard the name “Bernard Shaw” before, I did not know anything about him. I had know idea what to expect from this play.

Halfway through the first act I wasn’t happy about where I thought the play was going. It seemed very old, even Victorian. All the characters seem to have been introduced and the biggest conflict was engagement between the daughter of a rich (middle-class) family and the son of a rich (upper class) father. Not only did I find the premise uninteresting, but the poor (working class) did not seem to exist (except that someone had to be working in the middle-class father’s factory).

My disinterest turned to aversion when the characters suggested that Lord Summerhays, who had been the governor of a far-off colony “Jinghiskahn”, should be asked to govern domestic affairs in England. How naive can this play be?

Just before the curtained dropped on the first act, though, something unexpected happened. A man dressed all in black walked onto the empty stage carrying a gun. That was all, then the lights dimmed and it was intermission.

I asked my friend who had brought me to the play for a little background on Bernard Shaw. What time period was he from? And was this play of its time?

She informed me that Shaw had had a very long career but this play had probably been written in the late 1910s or early 1920s. And yes it was of its time.

I commented that its views on imperialism and class seemed to be very dated. But then the lights came back on and the second act began.

Indeed the play was written around the turn of the century and the first act was thoroughly Victorian. But in the second act, the 20th century had begun. The man in black carrying a gun was one of the poor (working class) and he intended to murder the patriarch of the rich (middle class) family. As the drama played out my heart was torn open. This man’s mother had worked in the underwear factory and had been sexually harassed by the owner. It was many years later and she had passed way. Her son was going to get justice.

Of course, he couldn’t do it. His gun was taken by Lina Szczepanowska, the independent, Polish acrobat. Then the man was disgraced by the rest of the cast and forced to sign a false document. When asked what he would do to this sort of man in “Jinghiskahn”, Lord Summerhays gave a disturbing speech that sent chills down my spine:

“Well, since you ask me so directly, I’ll tell you. I should take advantage of the fact that you have neither sense enough nor strength enough to know how to behave yourself in a difficulty of any sort. I should warn an intelligent and ambitious policeman that you are a troublesome person. The intelligent and ambitious policeman would take an early opportunity of upsetting your temper by ordering you to move on, and treading on your heels until you were provoked into obstructing an officer in the discharge of his duty. Any trifle of that sort would be sufficient to make a man like you lose your self-possession and put yourself in the wrong. You would then be charged and imprisoned until things quieted down.”

The man replies that such behavior is scandalous. Lord Summerhays adds, “Precisely: that’s all anybody has to say to it, except the British public, which pretends not to believe it.”

Then everything was turned on its head. The man was taken under the care of the rich (middle class) matriarch and we hear no more about socialism. Instead, the play becomes concerned with the mating of the two unwed women: Hypatia, the rich (middle class) daughter and the independent, Lina. I wasn’t sure if Lina was upper, middle, or lower class. She was an acrobat, an entertainer. So she worked for a living, but I think the idea was that she was outside the box. This is similar to Paul Fussell’s idea of an x-class.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play. The direction and acting were moving. The play itself brought up so much and showed how little has changed in a hundred years.

But I was left wondering at the audience’s reaction to the ideas presented. Lina’s monologue about the role of women in society and her refusal to marry received cheers from the audience. But the socialist ideas expressed by the poor man were not cheered. Instead it seemed that the man was the butt of some joke. Was that Shaw’s intention? Or was this the “misalliance”?

The play really got me thinking. The socialist in the play was confused about what he wanted. Which is why he allowed himself to be whisked away by the matriarch for tea and cake. But I don’t want tea and cake with rich people, even though I don’t know exactly what I want.

What is my intention? When I step onto the stage with the rich (middle class) and the rich (upper class), do I want to have a gun with me? Am I seeking justice? Revenge? Wealth?

With these questions in mind, I started reading a new novel: No-No Boy by John Okada. The main character, Ichiro, refused to join the Army during WWII because the government had put his parents into internments camps. When the judge asked him to enlist, Ichiro told the judge he would join up if the judge would make sure that his father and his mother were in the same camp. The judge said he could not do that. Ichiro said he could not join the Army and went to prison for two years.

I don’t know if this book will have the answers, but at least the author is asking the questions.

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